Howes: Inevitable auto plant shutdown signals caution, lack of confidence

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

In the end, rank-and-file auto workers could not be ignored.

Not after someone tested positive for COVID-19 in Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Sterling Heights Assembly Plant. Not after Detroit’s automakers asked tens of thousands of white-collar employees to work remotely even as members of the United Auto Workers were expected to report to their plants.

And certainly not after UAW President Rory Gamble laid a public marker that he and the union’s senior leadership would “take it to the next level” if the automakers refused to stop production for two weeks, implying the possibility of a mid-contract strike amid a national crisis threatening to shut down the world's largest economy.

The specter of coronavirus is proving powerful enough to quiet the plants of Fiat Chrysler, Ford and GM.

With each passing hour Tuesday into Wednesday, simmering mutinies stoked by fear felt palpable — concerns Ford Motor Co.'s chief operating officer, Jim Farley, told associates he heard during a visit to the Blue Oval's Dearborn Truck Assembly plant early Wednesday.

So here we are: the specter of coronavirus is proving powerful enough to quiet the plants of Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors Co.; to stop work at Honda Motor Co. plants in North America; to idle production for a cornerstone of industrial America, to wobble a Michigan economy that spent the past 10 years trying to bury its "Lost Decade."

This is historic and unprecedented, and not in a good way. It's the functional equivalent of a strike against all three companies in the three countries of North America. As a practical matter, the temporary shutdown wouldn't have occurred unless all three companies agreed to stop production roughly until the end of the month — and when they'll restart will be carefully evaluated.

That'll be tricky, giving new meaning to the ol' labor-management saying that it's easier to take the folks out than to get them back. Where will the state-by-state case numbers be by March 30? Or, worse, the death toll? And as long as automakers are not producing, and dealers are not ordering more vehicles, a lot of revenue will not be coming in.

For GM and Ford anyway, this is a third round managing the impact of coronavirus on their operations. Both were forced to idle production in China, where cases of the virus topped 80,000, pummeled the domestic economy and hammered auto sales that now are beginning to recover as production comes on line as virus cases slow.

GM faced a second wave in its South Korean operations, while Ford moved to stop production at its plants in Europe (as did Fiat Chrysler) because consumer demand tanked, European Union nations agreed to close borders and critical international supply lines were cut.

This crisis is as much about confidence as it is about public health and the readiness of government officials, business leaders and the health-care sector to deliver both. In an age of social media and 24-7 news cycles inevitably tinged by partisan politics, credible authorities who instill confidence can be hard to come by.

Investors and business leaders, local officials and everyday citizens, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and auto workers are not medical doctors or epidemiologists. They're people looking for signs of confidence in waves of uncertainty.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Or listen to his Saturday podcasts at detroitnews.com or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.