UAW pressure, coronavirus illnesses force Detroit 3 car company shutdown
Workers on the assembly line at the Ford Rouge plant are among the auto workers sent home in the national shutdown of plants by the Detroit 3. | Carlos Osorio/AP

DETROIT—United Auto Workers pressure, rising numbers of workers testing positive for the coronavirus and two brief work stoppages at a FiatChrysler plant in Detroit all combined to force the Detroit 3 car companies to shut their U.S. plants for at least two weeks to reduce potential worker exposure to the contagion.

Union President Rory Gamble hailed the March 18 move, which came just two days after FiatChrysler, Ford and GM rejected the union’s initial demand to shut assembly lines to help deal with the threat of a rapidly spreading pandemic.

“Today’s action is the prudent thing to do,” Gamble said on the afternoon of March 18.

“By taking a shutdown and working through next steps, we protect UAW members, their families and the community. We have time to review best practices when the plants reopen, and we prevent the possible spread of this pandemic.”

The trigger for the reversal was apparently when a Ford worker in its Michigan plant’s final assembly building tested positive for the virus. That plant will stay shut at least through the end of March. So will GM plants, CEO Mary Parra said.

They, and the Ford plant, will be deep-cleaned and disinfected. And GM will evaluate the situation “week by week” after March 30, Parra added.

Honda closed its U.S., Canadian and Mexican plants on March 18. GM and FiatChrysler closed all their European plants early this week, as the virus hit the continent hard. Ford planned to close its European plants, all in the United Kingdom, on March 19. But Mercedes-Benz told Business Insider “it was continuing to operate” its Alabama plant open. That plant is non-union.

The Detroit 3’s reversal came after they rejected Gamble’s and UAW’s demand on March 15 that they close for at least two weeks to help stop the community transmission and close contact among people that fosters the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.

Those are two measures, along with regular, vigorous handwashing, self-quarantine by those who test positive and protection of others against your sneezes and coughs – among other moves – the federal Centers for Disease Control recommends to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, officially called COVID-19.

As of midday March 18, some 6,500 people had tested positive in the U.S. for the virus, including the first five of the car company workers. That number is considered too low, given the slow pace of testing and the lack of test kits. Some 114 had died. Worldwide, more than 200,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, 9,000 have died and 87,000 have recovered so far.

The Detroit 3’s reversal also came after workers at FiatChrysler’s Jefferson Assembly Plant in Detroit put down their tools, twice, on the morning of March 18, in protest of the firm’s decision not to close, the Detroit Free Press reported.

In the first, from 9:30-11 am, workers were asking each other “Why are we here?” The paper also reported shouting matches on the plant floor, according to one veteran worker. The second Jefferson stoppage came after a worker threw up while on the assembly line, for unknown reasons, and the cleaning crew declined to clean the vomit up, it added.

Before yielding, the car companies had planned to cut shifts from three to two, stagger worker starting times and take other moves to cut down crowds in the assembly lines. They also sent white-collar workers home and told them to stay on the job via computer. And the company CEOs, Gamble and his three vice-presidents created a top-level crisis committee to discuss and impose anti-coronavirus measures.

Separately, FiatChrysler shut its Sterling Heights, Mich., plant to deep clean it, twice. The big Ford plant on Chicago’s South Side shut down March 16 because it ran out of parts.

That points up another impact of car company closures. When the Detroit 3 shut down, their suppliers are stuck, too, or vice versa: When the suppliers have to shut, for the coronavirus or anything else, the car firms must close plants.

Governors and mayors in states and cities nationwide ordered closures of large gathering places, such as bars, theaters, restaurants and sports arenas. Broadway is dark, and the Smithsonian museums in D.C. are all shut. So, for visitors, is the U.S. Capitol.

After an Auto Worker at the GM Technical Center in Warren, Mich., became the fifth to test positive among car company employees, UAW GM Department chief Terry Dittes said other workers there were quarantined, too.

“The UAW feels strongly no member should be disadvantaged in response to doing the right thing regarding the coronavirus exposure,” Dittes said in a statement. “Our first priority is to ensure the health and welfare of our members. That includes instances of quarantine which are in the best interest of our members, the public and the company operation.”

“Workplace health and safety is a priority for us every day, all three companies have been taking steps to keep the COVID-19/coronavirus out of their facilities and during this national emergency, we will do even more working together,” Gamble elaborated. “We are focused on doing the right thing for our people, their families, our communities and the country. All options related to protecting against exposure to the virus are on the table.”

There is evidence from overseas that vigorous social distancing, combined with the massive testing operations still lacking in the U.S., can produce positive results, For two days in a row now China has reported no additional infections.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.