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Texas UAW local wants GM to halt production as cases increase

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit  — The United Auto Workers Local 276 in Arlington, Texas is asking General Motors Co. to halt production of its new full-size SUVs as coronavirus cases rise in the state. 

In a June 29 report posted on the Local 276 website, the local's shop committee wrote: "Due to the most recent data on the Covid-19 outbreak, the Bargaining Committee has asked General Motors to shut down Arlington Assembly until the curve is flattened for the benefit and well-being of our members. Every day we are setting new records in the number of people who are testing positive in the Dallas-Fort Worth area."

The report comes after workers voiced similar concerns at two metro Detroit Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV plants, causing production to stop there temporarily before resuming.

With safety protocols in place to protect their workforce, automakers have pushed to progressively get back to full production following an eight-week shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. FCA and Ford Motor Co. have said they are now back at full, pre-coronavirus production levels, and GM is slated to be this week.

"There have been no changes to our production plans at Arlington because our safety protocols are working, thanks to a strong team effort," GM spokesman Jim Cain said in a statement. "Many of the same steps we follow inside our plants can help keep people safe when they’re not working, and that includes staying home if you’re not well, social distancing when you leave home, frequent hand washing and the use of masks."

Local 276 leadership could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Contractually, the union cannot decide to halt production. And if the local wanted to strike, it would first need approval from the international.

"Health and safety is our primary concern and we are working very closely with the local unions to make sure protocols are being followed and also to address any other safety and health concerns with them and the company," UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said.

FCA employees stopped working Saturday evening at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant after a worker there was sent to be tested for the coronavirus. Last Thursday afternoon, employees at FCA's Jefferson North Assembly plant on Detroit's east side refused to work after an employee was sent to be tested for the virus. Production at both plants has resumed. 

Workers have certain protections, outside of what the contracts between the UAW and Detroit's automakers stipulate, if they believe their health or safety is in danger. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, for example, give workers the right to stop working in certain circumstances.

"It has to be a pretty significant threat to their health and well-being, and an immediate threat," said Michelle Kaminski, an associate professor at Michigan State University's School of Human Resources and Labor Relations whose areas of expertise include labor law and collective bargaining. "And what they have to say is, 'I believe this job is unsafe. I will do this job when it is made safe, but I'm not going to do it while it's unsafe.'"

In general, they must also agree to do a different job in the meantime. In the case of the coronavirus, OSHA has not provided much in the way of guidance, she said, but: "From my own perspective as somebody who has worked in this area, I would consider exposure to coronavirus a serious and immediate threat."

Texas has started to see an uptick of cases in recent weeks, pushing Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to reverse some of the reopening decisions the state government previously made. Tarrant County — where Arlington, Texas, is located between Fort Worth and Dallas — saw a record high of 544 new confirmed cases on June 23 and since then cases have started to drop, according to county data. The county lists the community spread level as "substantial." 

"COVID-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in the state of Texas, and it must be corralled," Abbott said in a June 22 press release. "We have several strategies to reduce the spread without shutting Texas back down, but it is up to all of us to do our part to protect ourselves and others."

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall

Staff Writer Jordyn Grzelewski contributed.