DETROIT — Whenever Fiat Chrysler Automobiles restarts North America production, the UAW members working the lines will have to cope with the grim reality that COVID-19 has claimed the lives of several colleagues.
While it hasn’t been reported that an autoworker is among the dead in Ontario, Unifor is skeptical about a quick return to work.
The rising U.S. death count from the global coronavirus pandemic is personal for UAW members now. It includes familiar faces who walked the same halls and toiled on the same factory floors they did.
Clocking in won't be the same for Aric Holloway, a longtime worker at FCA's Warren Truck Assembly Plant north of Detroit. A co-worker who would greet people at the door died Wednesday, March 25.
"He would usually be there in the morning when you come in the front door, shaking your hand and telling you, 'Thanks for coming to work.' It was a joke that we" had, Holloway told Automotive News. "He would be in front of the plant every morning."
These deaths loom as automakers plot their courses of action. Mid-April appears to be the earliest that most North America production could come back on line. Ford Motor Co. last week said it planned to restart operations April 6 at one assembly plant in Mexico before reviving several U.S. factories April 14.
FCA said its production suspension will last until April 14, "dependent upon the various state stay-in-place orders and the readiness of each facility to return to production."
General Motors, after initially aiming to reopen its plants Monday, March 30, said last week, "The situation is fluid and can change week to week. We don't have firm return-to-work dates at this time."
Previewing what could be a battle over when workers should come back, UAW President Rory Gamble said the union was reviewing "with great caution and concern decisions being made about restarting workplaces, especially at advanced dates." Gamble said automaker executives must be guided by one simple question: "Would I send my family — my own son or daughter — into that plant and be 100 percent certain they are safe?"
In Canada, one local Unifor president said last week his members will take the lead from health agencies, not automotive executives.
“We’re going to go with what the medical professionals say. There’s a lot of things that need to be put in place,” Unifor Local 444 President David Cassidy said.
He represents about 4,500 workers at FCA’s Windsor, Ont., assembly plant, which produces the automaker’s minivans.
His members walked off the job nearly two weeks ago in fear of the virus after they found out one member was self-isolating after possibly secondhand contact with an infected person.
“We’ll play this by ear. The safety of our membership is No. 1,” Cassidy said.
Unifor Local 200 President John D'Agnolo, who represents workers at Ford’s engine plants in Windsor, Ont., told the CBC on March 25 that he wants to make sure his members are safe before returning to work.
"Right now, we're going to be going back to work as of April 20," he told the public broadcaster. "They haven't given us any more details after that.
“"They're ordering more supplies, like masks, like shields, to protect people that are going to be working within a six-foot radius. But that doesn't mean that they will be entirely safe. That's the dynamic we have right now."