If there was one part of the North American auto industry that worried me the most heading into the COVID-19 crisis, it was the United Auto Workers.
The union doesn't seem like the most transparent or responsive democratic organization in the best of times. And in the depths of a criminal investigation that has convicted several former leaders and appears to have put the union on a path toward a federal takeover, a weakened UAW could really struggle to credibly communicate to or for its members.
Instead, we've seen what looks like responsible leadership and measured communication that has served the workers and management well.
I can't claim to know if auto makers' full-throated support of the UAW's judgment that early May was "too soon" to resume production was the outcome of mutual respect and a sense of common objectives or whether it was out of fear of a work stoppage—organized by leaders in Detroit or independently by people who don't feel safe on the job.
But throughout this process of halting most of America's economic life and then trying to get it started again, the UAW, the Detroit 3 and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have shown about as much unanimity as antitrust laws would allow.
When UAW President Rory Gamble said that early May was too soon to start making autos again, he may have saved the companies—and the country—from a larger setback, according to Arthur Weaton, labor professor at Cornell University. With thousands of people moving through relatively few doorways (and not all that many restrooms), assembly plants could be hotbeds of transmission—as has been seen in several U.S. meatpacking plants, he said.
So Wheaton was encouraged by Gamble's acceptance of the May 18 date for restarting some assembly work. "To me, it means that they've made some progress on finding solutions to try to maintain a little bit better social distancing, increase their cleaning capacity and take other measures to protect the worker," he said.
For seeking solutions in the current crisis, it can't have hurt that Gamble rose up through the union's Ford division, which has gone decades without a national strike and consistently has the best labor relations, starting with the leadership of Executive Chairman Bill Ford.
Relations with General Motors and Fiat Chrysler are rather raw: The union went on strike against GM for 40 days last fall, and FCA is under federal investigation as the union's co-conspirator.
But Ford, now the UAW's biggest employer, has kept its labor relations productive through good times and bad—which probably shaped Gamble's approach and willingness to find compromise.
"Rory Gamble may not have been a unanimous choice at the meetings to pick him," Wheaton said. "But I think he has been a good choice so far."
Butters is chief content officer for Automotive News, a sister publication of Rubber & Plastics News.