A truck waits to load at General Motors Flint Assembly on May 18, 2020, during the first day back to work since the plant closed due to COVID-19. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
General Motors’ Flint Assembly plant is running full-on as its 5,000 hourly workers push to meet pent-up demand for the heavy-duty Silverado and Sierra pickups GM builds there.
The plant, along with all of the Detroit Three’s U.S. factories, sat idle for about eight weeks this spring as the coronavirus pandemic surged, putting production behind.
So Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s warning this week that she could shut down auto factories in Michigan once again if residents don’t obey her order to wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19 has sent the auto industry into a tailspin.
“There’s a future at risk. This is our future,” said Eric Welter, UAW Local 598 shop chairman who represents the workers at Flint Assembly. “There is market demand right now. People want our product and if we don’t deliver that product, that’s our job security. So we have to push on, do it safely, but product demand is job security.”
On Thursday, the group representing Michigan’s auto industry sent a pleading letter to Whitmer noting that “no major COVID cases are tied to any Michigan auto facility,” crediting that to safety protocols in the plants.
More: Whitmer stresses wearing masks: What steps Michigan could take next
“On behalf of Michigan’s automotive leaders, I urge you to resist the closure of our manufacturing facilities and allow these demonstrated safety protocols to continue working to keep our businesses open,” wrote Glenn Stevens, executive director, MICHauto, an economic development initiative of the Detroit Regional Chamber, dedicated to the Michigan automotive industry.
A painful ripple effect
The Detroit Three and the UAW devised the safety protocols during the factory shutdown period from late March to mid-May. During that time, 25 union members across Ford Motor, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Aramark died of COVID-19 complications. But since restarting the plants with the safety processes, there have been no coronavirus-related deaths, the UAW said.
But if the governor closes auto plants in Michigan, the ripple effect on the tens of thousands of jobs connected to those plants, such as at auto parts suppliers and car dealerships — even in other states — could be economically devastating.
Still, the governor did not mince words during a news conference in Lansing Wednesday, saying: “If Michiganders don’t mask up when we go out in public, cases could rise and we could be forced to close down more of our businesses, including auto manufacturing plants that employ thousands. A second wave of this virus could be absolutely devastating.”
On Wednesday, Michigan reported 891 new coronavirus cases, the most new cases in a day since May 14. The Michigan health department reported an additional 660 coronavirus cases Friday, bringing the statewide total to 72,502. The state reported seven more deaths, which increases Michigan’s death toll to 6,108 since March.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said Whitmer’s comment was likely motivated by a desire to get people to wear face masks.
“The reaction she’s looking for is wear your mask and the reaction people are having is probably why she said it,” Dingell told the Free Press.
“From the very beginning the governor has been in close contact with the UAW and the three companies. They have all set up COVID task forces and they want to make sure everyone is safe,” Dingell said. “The best thing everyone can do is wear masks and don’t drive data, to make sure this decision doesn’t have to be made again.”
Difference big dollars make
Flint’s Welter said he respects the job the governor has done to flatten the curve, especially considering the rocketing number of COVID-19 cases in Florida and Texas.
But the auto industry is not the problem, Welter said. It’s the one place that mandates face masks be worn at all times, he said.
“I walk into Home Depot and half the people have masks on and half don’t,” Welter said. “We haven’t had one case that’s led to someone else getting it in the plant. So shutting down the auto industry isn’t really the answer.”
UAW Local 598 Shop Chairman Eric Welter. He represents the 5,000 hourly workers at General Motors Flint Assembly plant where the automaker builds its heavy-duty pickups. (Photo: Courtesy/UAW Local 598)
As of Friday, Flint Assembly had seven confirmed cases of the virus, Welter said. Flint’s number is minuscule compared with plants located in other states.
Take GM’s Arlington Assembly plant that sits near Dallas, a hotbed of COVID-19 cases. The Free Press has obtained documents showing that since restarting the plant in late May, at least 56 workers at Arlington had tested positive for coronavirus as of Friday. That figure was confirmed by a person familiar with it, but who declined to be named because they are not authorized to release the information.
Also, GM’s Wentzville Assembly plant near St. Louis sits in an area that has seen an explosion of cases. As of July 13, local union leaders told members via social media that there were 27 confirmed cases.
At Flint, Welter said contact tracing shows those sick workers contracted the virus outside of the plant walls. Plant managers have kept the virus off the shop floor and with at-the-door screening, masks and cleaning. GM has tested at least 300 people and put them on leave until the results came back negative, allowing them to return to work, he said.
“We talk every day as GM and the UAW on keeping the workers safe and keeping the integrity of the practices in the plant safe,” Welter said. “That’s the difference with the auto industry. There’s a lot of money involved and the last thing the automakers want is to be shut down by the government.”
‘A tall order’
The idea of idling Michigan’s assemby lines again isn’t a go-to solution for the UAW either, where a task force regularly discusses plant safety with the automakers.
That’s all the UAW can do because the pandemic happened after the union negotiated its current contract, so there is no provision in the contract for handling this situation.
“There is no doubt that the shutdown, social distancing and following safety protocols saves lives,” UAW President Rory Gamble told the Free Press.
UAW International acting president Rory Gamble speaks to the Detroit Free Press from his office in Southfield on Wednesday, November 6, 2019. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)
But, the union tries to educate all members to follow these practices, he said, not just at work, but outside of the workplace too.
“With over 400,000 members across the country we have had positive tests but the death rate among members has gone markedly down so far and none at the Detroit Three since we have returned to work,” Gamble said.
Still, Gamble said every day he tries to follow “how our members are doing and what we can adjust or enhance to protect them and their families. There is no blueprint for this, and success today does not mean we won’t face a challenge tomorrow. There is only vigilance to protect UAW members, their families and communities, and it is a tall order.”
Detroit Three in demand
While second-quarter auto sales saw an overall decline, there is still strong demand for pickups and SUVs and Michigan factories are critical for all three automakers.
GM makes the big-selling Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra heavy-duty pickups in Flint.
Ford assembles its redesigned top-selling F-150 pickup at its Dearborn Truck facility and the revived Bronco SUV at Michigan Assembly in Wayne.
FCA builds its popular Ram 1500 Classic pickup at Warren Truck and its 2019 Ram 1500 pickup at Sterling Height Assembly. Likewise, it makes the popular Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango SUVs at Jefferson North Assembly in Detroit.
Safety on the outside
Ford said it continues to work closely with the UAW and external experts in infectious diseases and epidemiology on developing safety protocols to protect workers, including requiring everyone in a Ford facility to wear a face mask at all times.
“Data indicate those protocols are working,” Ford spokesperson Kelli Felker said. “Since we put them in place, nationwide no one identified as a close contact who was following our protocols has developed symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19.”
Ford is also working with the UAW on a campaign to encourage employees to follow similar safety protocols outside of the workplace.
“It’s important because our plants are a reflection of the communities surrounding them,” Felker said. “We are utilizing joint messaging, posters and other communication methods in this campaign.”
Likewise, GM said its safety protocols, including using face masks, social distancing and other tools, are helping to keep people safe. It also continually encourages them to practice the protocols outside of work.
“We see the same level of commitment at other companies too, which is why millions of people in Michigan and across the country are safely returning to work,” GM spokesman Jim Cain said. “We can keep the momentum going if more people follow the same scientific and medical advice when they are with their families and friends, or out in the community.”
Similarly FCA spokesperson Shawn Morgan said, “Even as local economies have started to reopen and people are socializing more, FCA’s comprehensive, multilayered program of safety measures — onsite temperature checks, daily health questionnaires, mandatory use of personal protection equipment, social distancing, and continual cleaning and disinfecting — remains in place inside our facilities to protect our employees.”
Like GM and Ford, FCA said the measures have prevented spread of the virus in its plants. It also reminds workers about the importance of following recommended guidelines and taking precautions outside of work.
Death of plant workers
One thing no one wants is a repeat of what happened early on in the pandemic before the governor allowed the Detroit Three to shut down in March. During that time, 25 workers lost their lives to the virus.
Even then, virus watchdogs say the auto industry fared better than some other industries such as the meat-packing industry. In a June USA Today report, the number of coronavirus cases tied to meat-packing plants topped 20,400 infections across 216 plants in 33 states, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found. At least 74 people had died.
That’s despite widespread implementation of protective measures like temperature checks, plastic barriers and social distancing meant to curb the virus’ spread inside the plants. Some of the recent outbreaks happened at facilities that had taken such steps.
The auto industry plants allow for workers to do more social distancing in their jobs than a meat-packing plant, which makes it safer, said Ravi Anupindi, a professor at Michigan Ross, U-M’s school of business.
Also, the UAW’s pressure on the automakers to shut down the places likely helped mitigate further spread of the virus early in the pandemic, Anupindi said.
“Most of the workforce at meat-packing plants are migrant labor so it’s very different from what you see in the auto industry. It made a difference,” Anupindi said. “Would management on its own initiate safety plans? We expect them too but they will weigh costs. Having some kind of representation saying this is important for the workers. … Does worker representation help? Yes, it does.”
In fact at the non-union Tesla plant in Fremont, California, there are about 130 workers who have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Electrek. Tesla employs about 10,000 people at that plant.
Since restarting their operations in mid-May and implementing a series of safety protocols that meet CDC and WHO guidelines, no plant workers have died of the virus, the union said. Of those who died earlier, most worked for FCA facilities.
“As a global family, we have not been spared from the very personal impact of this pandemic. It is with deep sadness that we remember those we have lost to this pandemic,” FCA’s Morgan said. “Our thoughts are with them and their families in their grief.”
To date, the pandemic has claimed the lives of 25 UAW members. Here are their names and where they worked:
- Alfred Adams, Sterling Stamping.
- Jeff Bagby, Kokomo Transmission
- Donald Chisholm, FCA Transport
- Marc Garland, Warren Stamping
- Don Hamilton, Chelsea Proving Grounds
- Sylvia Hammock, Sterling Heights Assembly
- Tommy Hammonds, Mopar Centerline
- Jerry Hayes, Sterling Heights Assembly
- Michael Hunt, Warren Truck Assembly
- Catherine Bright Pace, Warren Truck Assembly
- Michael Powers, Warren Truck Assembly
- Monik Rick, Mopar Centerline
- Lorenzo Seldon, Warren Truck Assembly
- Ricardo Smith, Sterling Heights Assembly
- Juma Stallworth, Sterling Stamping
- Michael Billington, World Headquarters
- Gregory Boyd, Dearborn Stamping
- Keith Cruz, Livonia Transmission
- LaDonna Jennings, Dearborn Diversified Manufacturing
- Thomas Johnson, Michigan Assembly
- Donald Milton, Livonia Transmission
- Lujuan Partee, Michigan Assembly
- David Ramirez, Chicago Assembly
- Renard Stonestreet, Livonia Transmission
GM – contract worker for Aramark
- Emmitt Holland, GM Tech Center
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