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Ford CEO says UAW is ‘holding the deal hostage’ over EV battery plants

Members of the United Auto Workers union picket outside the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan, on Sept. 26, 2023.

Matthew Hatcher | AFP | Getty Images

DETROIT — The United Auto Workers union is holding up negotiations with Ford Motor over future electric vehicle battery plants, Ford CEO Jim Farley said during a press briefing Friday.

“I believe we could have reached a compromise on pay and benefits, but so far the UAW is holding the deal hostage over battery plants,” he said after the UAW announced it would expand strikes to two additional assembly plants — one each for Ford and General Motors.

Farley criticized the union for its targeted strike strategy, saying he feels the actions were “premeditated” and insinuating the union was never interested in reaching a deal before a Sept. 14 deadline.

“We have felt from the very beginning, between all the lines of our comments, that the original strike was premeditated and that everything is taking way too long,” he said. “That actual events are predetermined before they happen. It’s been very frustrating.”

Farley’s public criticism of the union is uncharacteristic for Ford, which is historically viewed as the most union-friendly company of the Detroit automakers.

Farley said the company isn’t “at an impasse” with the union but warned that day “could come if this continues.”

GM CEO Mary Barra echoed much of Farley’s criticisms of Fain and the UAW’s strike strategy.

“It’s clear that there is no real intent to get to an agreement,” she said in an emailed statement Friday night. “It is clear Shawn Fain wants to make history for himself, but it can’t be to the detriment of our represented team members and the industry.”

UAW President Shawn Fain fired back at Farley, saying the CEO hasn’t been present at the bargaining table and that he’s “lying about the state of negotiations.”

“It could be because he failed to show up for bargaining this week, as he has for most of the past ten weeks. If he were there, he’d know we gave Ford a comprehensive proposal on Monday and still haven’t heard back,” Fain said in a statement Friday afternoon. “He would also know that we are far apart on core economic proposals like retirement security and post-retirement healthcare, as well as job security in this EV transition, which Farley himself says is going to cut 40 percent of our members’ jobs.”

Multibillion-dollar EV battery plants — and their thousands of expected workers — are crucial to the automotive industry’s future and uniquely positioned to have wide-ranging implications for the UAW, automakers and President Joe Biden’s push toward domestic manufacturing.

Current and former union leaders previously told CNBC that the battery plants will have to be a priority for the labor organization, regardless of whether they’re directly discussed in the national agreement, for the long-term viability of the union.

However, they’re considered a “wild card” issue in the contract negotiations. Many of the battery plants that have been announced cannot legally be included in the current talks, as they are joint venture facilities.

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain addresses picketing UAW members at a General Motors Service Parts Operations plant in Belleville, Michigan, on Sept. 26, 2023, as U.S. President Joe Biden joined the workers.

Jim Watson | Afp | Getty Images

Ford has announced four future battery plants, including three joint ventures and a wholly owned subsidiary using battery technology licensed from Chinese auto supplier CATL. Ford earlier this week paused construction on the latter plant in Marshall, Michigan, due to the union negotiations, Farley said.

“We can make Marshall a lot bigger or a lot smaller,” Farley said Friday.

GM is the only Detroit automaker with a joint venture battery plant in operation and unionized — making it the first in the country to face this particular negotiating dynamic and a landmark plant to set standards for the industry.

Farley noted that some of the battery production won’t even be covered under the timeline of the deals that are currently being negotiated. He also defended the company’s prior offers, which include more than 20% hourly wage growth, reinstatement of cost-of-living adjustments, job protections and other benefits.

“If the UAW’s goal is a record contract, they have already achieved this,” Farley said. “It is grossly irresponsible to escalate these strikes and hurt thousands of families.”

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