Less than two weeks ago, United Auto Workers leaders faced brewing rebellion among rank-and-file members alarmed that COVID-19 outbreaks in auto plants would sicken them, too.

The rising discontent effectively forced General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV to stop production to forestall what would have amounted to panic-induced walkouts. And as coronavirus spreads, the Detroit automakers are signaling the costly shutdowns are likely to continue at least until next month.

But now, as auto plants are shuttered nationwide, many of those same union members are stepping forward to support a cause bigger than themselves. At least 1,600 workers are returning to at least six plants of varying sizes — five of them in Michigan —  to do their part producing masks, face shields and ventilators for health-care workers treating patients battling complications from coronavirus.

And the effectiveness of new safety protocols they’re operating under — social distancing on the plant floor, protective equipment, entrance and exit processes and daily screenings — are likely to shape how and how soon plants return to building the cars, trucks and SUVs needed to restore depleted revenue and restart a cornerstone of the nation's industrial economy.

“We’re being very cautious and careful about it,” says UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg, adding that union vice presidents and their counterparts at the automakers meet daily to monitor the processes. “If we don’t, the whole thing falls apart” — and Detroit’s so-called “Arsenal of Health” stumbles when its innovation and manufacturing scale are needed most.

Doctors and nurses in Michigan and around the country are reporting severe shortages of masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment needed to care for patients infected with the contagious virus. And The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the Strategic National Stockpile of those items managed by the federal Department of Health and Human Services is "running low and is nearly exhausted."

The automotive surge of medical equipment can't come soon enough. With voluntary UAW labor that will be paid their standard wages, the union confirms, GM is upping production of masks in its closed Warren Transmission plant and retooling its Kokomo Operations in Indiana to build ventilators in a joint venture with Ventec Life Systems.

And Ford is building masks, face shields and soon will be assembling GE/Airon Model A-E ventilators in a partnership with GE Healthcare in its Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti. The Blue Oval also is planning to assemble air purifying respirators, a project with 3M Co., at its Flat Rock Assembly Plant.

All of these operations will be staffed by UAW volunteers. They're essentially the advance team for fellow union members who will be called back to assembly lines when the worst of the pandemic begins to dissipate and the automakers move to restart production, despite what are likely to be lingering hotspots of COVID-19 around the country.

"We're using and deploying a whole host of techniques to enable us to keep our workers safe," Adrian Price, Ford's director of global manufacturing and core engineering, said this week. "We're working directly with the UAW to ensure that our workers have the appropriate social distancing in place, that we do pre-screening of those employees before they enter the facilities, and that we have the appropriate barriers, shields and protective devices in place."

As Michigan's cases of the disease neared 10,000 Wednesday and hospitals warned of dwindling supplies and badly strained capacity, Detroit's automakers are retooling key facilities with unprecedented speed; joining with the UAW to build the medical gear needed; and building a framework to start again building vehicles in the Age of COVID-19.

Everyone has a role to play — from social distancing and staying home to re-engineering auto plants to wage a fight against an enemy that can't be ignored.

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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 or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.

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