What to make of the latest escalation at Ford

United Auto Workers members strike the General Motors Lansing Delta Assembly Plant on September 29, 2023 in Lansing, Michigan. 

Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

DETROIT – A shift in strategy by the United Auto Workers union this week has some analysts wondering if the parties are — perhaps, counterintuitively — getting closer to a deal.

On Wednesday the union initiated a surprise work stoppage at Ford Motor’s Kentucky Truck Plant. The strike involves 8,700 workers and affects the most crucial plant, by far – responsible for $25 billion in revenue annually – that the union has walked out on since the strikes began Sept. 15. It’s expected to quickly have a ripple effect on other Ford plants and suppliers.

It also ushered in what UAW President Shawn Fain characterized as a “new phase” of strikes and contract negotiations with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler-parent Stellantis, giving the union the element of surprise to keep the automakers on edge during the ongoing negotiations, Fain told members in a Friday presentation.

“We’re entering a new phase of this fight and it demands a new approach,” Fain said Friday. “We’re done waiting until Fridays to escalate our strike.

“We are prepared at any time to call on more locals to stand up and walk out,” he said.

Until this week, Fain had announced all of the union’s new strikes on Fridays, during what has become a weekly livestreamed update for union members.

Some Wall Street analysts and industry experts think this week’s shift in strategy could be a sign that UAW leaders feel a deal with Ford is close, and that they’re increasing pressure as a tactic to get the deal over the finish line — and to help sell a potential tentative deal to their members.

“We continue to believe the escalation at [Ford] this week is a sign the talks may be coming to an end. KY Truck is likely Ford’s most profitable plant, and therefore the strike is the highest level of escalation, aside from a national strike,” Wells Fargo analyst Colin Langan wrote in a Friday note. “This escalation would likely be done to push for final terms.”

But the UAW’s leaders may be looking one more step ahead, to the process of selling a tentative deal with Ford to their members. The thinking is that to convince members to ratify a potential new contract, UAW President Shawn Fain and the union’s leadership will need to convince autoworkers that the union has fought as hard as possible to have their demands met. Striking Ford’s most profitable factory might be one way to do that.

Wolfe Research’s Rod Lache argued the Kentucky strike may allow UAW leadership to claim that they did all that could be done, especially if it leads to one or two more concessions from Ford.

“In another week or two, Fain should be able to credibly announce that he has forced Ford into one last capitulation (battery plants?), and that UAW members have secured the last few ounces of wage, benefits, and job protection concessions that they can get,” Lache wrote Thursday to…

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