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UAW union embraces social media as labor talks toughen ahead of deadline

Published 09/09/2023, 06:02 AM
Updated 09/09/2023, 06:05 AM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain greets UAW autoworkers, at the Stellantis Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, to mark the beginning of contract negotiations in Sterling Heights, Michigan, U.S. July 12, 2023.  REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/File Ph
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By Bianca Flowers

(Reuters) - The United Auto Workers union is leveraging the power of social media to attract public support in demanding substantial wage increases for hourly workers as a deadline looms with the Detroit Three automakers.

UAW President Shawn Fain hasn't held back on his rhetoric to call out General Motors (NYSE:GM), Ford (NYSE:F) and Stellantis (NYSE:STLA) , accusing executives of "corporate greed" in a series of Facebook (NASDAQ:META) livestreams over recent weeks and telling members to prepare to "go to war." On Friday, he said the UAW was prepared to strike all three companies if no deals are reached.

While the UAW has shown glimpses in the past of embracing new ways to communicate, under Fain's leadership it has openly embraced Facebook, Instagram and X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, and adopted documentary-style, short-form videos to get its message out in a colorful and highly memorable fashion.

"This is not your grandfather's UAW," Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives said. "Fain is playing this like a chess player. He's leading 21st century negotiations for unions."

Fain, who took over in March as president of the UAW and vowed that it would be "a lot more aggressive," has outlined an ambitious set of demands and been successful in mobilizing members by using creative short-form videos on Instagram in a move to speak to younger members.

The UAW represents about 150,000 workers at the automakers.

"What we've seen is the new president of the UAW taking an offer from the automakers and throwing it in a wastebasket on social media. That gives it a different dimension," said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

In a Facebook Live appearance on Friday, Fain spoke with a trash can labeled "Big Three Proposals" behind him.

In response to Fain's hard-nosed comments, the automakers have been more public-facing with contract offers, said Brian Rothenberg, a former spokesman for the union.

Auto executives have repeatedly stressed the companies must reduce labor costs as they overhaul U.S. factories to build electric vehicles to match Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) and other non-union manufacturers.

This week, the UAW released a video in an effort to save a shuttered Stellantis plant in the northern Illinois town of Belvidere.

Entitled "Justice for Belvidere," the video chronicled the frustration and anger union members have felt since the Jeep assembly plant was idled in February. It included music and sweeping shots of the picturesque town.

Stellantis declined to comment on the video and on Friday offered U.S. hourly workers a 14.5% wage hike over four years, which the UAW rebuffed, saying it would not make up for inflation.

Some hourly workers in Belvidere have accepted relocation packages to work at facilities in neighboring states, but most hope there's still a future for the 50-year-old plant once the talks are settled.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain greets UAW autoworkers, at the Stellantis Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, to mark the beginning of contract negotiations in Sterling Heights, Michigan, U.S. July 12, 2023.  REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/File Photo

As the clock ticks down toward the Sept. 14 contract expiration, the union's deadline for the talks, local president Matt Frantzen said he's already begun assigning strike duties.

The UAW has demanded wage hikes of 46%, an end to the tiered wage system that pays new hires less than veterans, reinstatement of cost-of-living adjustments and restoration of defined-benefit pension plans for new hires, which the automakers ended in 2007.

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