As the United Auto Workers strike enters its second month, the union has targeted much of its animosity at Ford Motor Company. Its Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., was among the first group of plants struck by the union. Last week, the U.A.W. added Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant, a manufacturing behemoth, to the walkouts.
[Ed Note: Ford Chairman Bill Ford spoke earlier today to address the existing gap between his family’s company and the UAW. Micheline Maynard, an award-winning journalist and author who covered the industry as the Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times, wrote this piece earlier for her Substack Intersection: Everything That Moves, which you can subscribe to here. We’re reprinting it her with permission.]
Shawn Fain, the U.A.W. president, can be speaking of only one person when he wears a T-shirt that reads “Eat The Rich” and talks repeatedly about the billionaire class. While the other auto company chief executives have reaped millions in compensation, only Bill Ford Jr.’s family have collectively ranked as billionaires.
And yet, the concept of management-labor cooperation in the American auto industry has its roots at Ford four decades ago. When the union failed to get a deal at General Motors in 1982, it put those talks on hold, and went to Ford. There, company executives adopted a partnership attitude that was supposed to reap benefits for workers, which Ford would argue it has, but which indirectly besmirched the union’s reputation.
On Monday, Bill Ford said everything that would have been well-received by union officials and most likely union members only a few years ago. “It doesn’t have to go this way,” Ford said in a broadcast from the company’s sprawling Rouge complex in Dearborn, Mich. “We can stop this now.”
Ford pointed out that it is the only U.S. carmaker to add U.A.W. jobs the past few years and that the company is “the strongest partner the U.A.W. has ever known. At the end of the day, we’ve always recognized that we are all Ford, and we will succeed or fail together,” he said.
It’s true that auto workers in Detroit have always viewed Ford in a more-human way than the other carmakers. Generations of union members have said they worked at “Ford’s” meaning the Ford family’s company. It has been decades since anyone used the nickname “Generous Motors” for G.M., and Stellanis is only a two-year-old brand name.
Not Time to Stop
But appealing to nostalgia is not a tactic that works with Fain.
As I listened to Ford speak, another scene popped into my head — one from Funny Face, the classic movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Audrey is gliding down a staircase at the Louvre, in a bright red dress, gaining speed as she descends.
“Stop! Stop!” declares Fred, trying to get a shot. “I don’t want to stop,” Audrey replies.
Ford and other company officials have talked repeatedly about the generous economic offer that the automaker is making to the union. But Fain has made clear before and since the strike that a generous pay package is not all that the union is seeking.
In this single set of negotiations, Fain wants to undo all of the concessions made by the U.A.W. since 2007 and especially since the Obama Administration’s auto rescue plan in 2009.
He would like to reinstate contract provisions that have not been in effect for 15 years or more — the return of Cost of Living Allowances, the virtual elimination of tiers of workers, full wages and benefits for everyone on the factory floor. Moreover, the U.A.W. wants to have a say in future company directions such as the merge into electric cars.
A Fundamental Miscommunication
This is where Ford and Fain are speaking two different languages. Ford is saying everything that exemplified cooperation in a pre-2007 world. Fain is speaking from the reality of a 2023 world and beyond.
Ford pointed out that only four generations of his family have led the auto company since its founding in 1903. “It’s personal for me,” he said on Monday.
It is personal for Fain, too, in a different way. He frequently shows off his grandfather’s pay stub as proof of his own deep automotive roots, but his own stature is significant, too.
Fain is the first directly elected U.A.W. leader in the union’s history. He is also the first elected leader to succeed the U.A.W. presidents and other officials who went to prison. As such, he is tasked with a monumental clean-up.
Not only is Fain trying to restore years of concessions. He is trying to prove that the union can again lead the union movement without anyone questioning his integrity. There was not a peep of scandal about legendary U.A.W. presidents such as Walter Reuther, Leonard Woodcock and Doug Fraser, among others.
But the labor-management cooperation that kicked off at Ford in 1982 subsequently mushroomed out of control. Union presidents began playing golf with company leaders, attending black-tie events and then, defrauding joint training funds.
The scandal blew up during the pandemic at Fiat Chrysler, now called Stellanis, resulting in jail terms and plea agreements between the Justice Department and more than 17 U.A.W. defendants. It also resulted in a federal monitor of the union whose term will run another five years.
Where Ford talks about a partnership, Fain hears what led to irresistible temptation for his predecessors and colleagues.
There is no doubt that Bill Ford is sincere. “Let’s come together, and reach an agreement, so we can take the fight to the real competition and build a great company for years to come,” he said Monday.
It is simply extraordinary to listen to him and other company executives during the strike. In previous times, officials at the automakers went absolutely silent during negotiations and walkouts.
In fact, so did union leaders, save for occasional appearances to rally their troops. So, we’re in a unique situation where the union and Ford are regularly speaking out. Yet, neither one of them are comprehending what the other is saying. Until they do, an end will not come quickly.
Photo Illustration: UAW