Striking United Auto Workers want better wages, more job security, raises for retirees and a 32-hour work week that could spur broader adoption of shorter work weeks.
Currently, nearly 13,000 UAW workers are employed by Ford Motor Co. leave F,
General Motors Co. GM,
and Jeep and Chrysler parent company Stellantis STLA,
still considered the influential Big Three for automakers.
If the union wins on the 32-hour workweek demand, it could give a major boost to the broader four-day workweek movement, experts say.
Four-day work is “still in the early stages of adoption,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, director of Four Day Week Global, where he advises companies considering how to implement a condensed traditional workweek.
A UAW victory on the 32-hour requirement “would help change the four-day work week from something you do when you have a bold leader and you want to stand out in your industry, to a mainstream pursuit for every worker and business owner. said Soojung-Kim Pang.
“A lot more people can look at the four-day work week and say if they can do this in a car factory, I can absolutely do it here in my small factory or in my company,” he added.
Even if the 32-hour work week doesn’t make it into the final deal, it’s a “game changer” that the demand is there at all, he said. The question could draw the idea into labor negotiations far beyond the standoff between the UAW and the company.
A UAW victory on the 32-hour work week would create a “huge resonance,” says Cathy Creighton of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
The presence of demand is a sign of the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Creighton said. While five days of in-person office visits may seem like a thing of the past, “we have undergone fundamental changes in the way employees and employers view work life and work-life balance.”
Many factory workers may not be able to work remotely, but they can push for a shorter week from the physically demanding work, she noted. Historically, the UAW was one of the first unions to provide health benefits, vacation time and pensions for its members, she noted.
“I think the labor movement has been playing it safe for a long time, and not anymore,” Creighton said. The UAW’s requirement for a 32-hour work week is a good example of that, she said. “The five-day work week is so ingrained in our psyche that thinking about anything else is like an earthquake.”
Research shows that people are ready for a shake-up. Nearly six in 10 people who work five days say they would prefer four 10-hour days, according to an August poll in an ongoing study by academic researchers of employee attitudes.
“We all know that living in a factory seven days a week, twelve hours a day is no life at all. We need a real work-life balance. Autoworkers deserve a life,” UAW President Shawn Fain told members in a video update days before the targeted strike.
About 12,700 UAW members have so far left their jobs at a Ford Motor plant in Michigan, a GM plant in Missouri and an Ohio plant for Stellantis NV, the maker of brands including Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep and Ram Trucks.
Of course, there is no guarantee how far the question extends. The companies have counter-proposals to the series of union questions, as shown in a chart from researchers at Evercore ISI. They do not yet have counters for the 32-hour working week.
Moving to a 32-hour work week with 40 hours of pay would mean high labor costs on top of the wage increases the UAW is already seeking, a Stellantis spokeswoman said. To maintain current production schedules, it would be necessary to hire at least 25% more workers, she said.
“We are extremely disappointed by the UAW leadership’s refusal to responsibly reach a fair agreement in the best interests of our employees, their families and our customers,” the company said in a statement.
In a statement, GM said it was “disappointed by the actions of the UAW leadership, despite the unprecedented economic package GM put on the table, including historic wage increases and production commitments.”
Ford did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s a big chess game that Shawn Fain is playing. We’ll see how it turns out,” Creighton said.
“Even if they don’t get the four-day week this time, there will be other moves in this game in the future,” said Soojung-Kim Pang, from the UAW and beyond.
“Even though you now have to give on the four-day week, that does not mean that you give the four-day week as an ideal or goal.”