General Motors CEO Mary Barra described it as an “incredibly exciting time” for the automaker ahead of contract talks with the UAW in the fall of 2023 for two unknown reasons: the future of union leadership and the health of the U.S. economy.
But Barra, speaking to the media at an Automotive Press Association event in Detroit on Thursday, said he had an idea of the main challenges facing GM and the union, noting that an uncertain economy could affect new contract terms.
“What do people want? They want job security and they want recognition … and they want to be compensated accordingly,” Barra said. “But given inflation and the (uncertain) economic backdrop, it’s going to be interesting. Say what the economic situation will be like next year. I think no one knows.”
Barra noted that the UAW’s officer selection “isn’t done yet, so it’s going to be important to watch” so GM’s bargaining team knows who they’ll be sitting with next year. Last week, UAW members chose the first orientation of top leaders. There was no clear winner for the top job, prompting a runoff to determine whether incumbent Ray Curry should be ousted. Many reform candidates won seats. These are candidates who have expressed concerns about the union’s long-running corruption scandal and its leaders’ unwillingness to fight hard enough against wage levels and other concessions. Now they will have a seat at the decision-making table for years to come.
Meanwhile, hourly workers at GM’s joint-venture battery cell plant, Ultium Cells LLC in Lordstown, Ohio, began voting Wednesday on whether to have union representation at the facility. The results of this vote are expected on Friday or over the weekend. When asked if the Ultium Cells plant could merge, Barra said he supports the union, noting that his father, Ray McKellen, was a tool and die maker at GM’s former Pontiac plant and started working at the plant at age 18. Co-op student at Kettering University.
“We are a company that has worked with unions around the world for many years, so we welcome Ultium to have union representation,” Barra said. “We can work together on things like health and safety and quality training. I always say my teeth are straight because my dad worked at General Motors.”
Barra said he would sign a contract with Ultium Cells workers “as soon as possible” if they approve the union. But, he said: “We have to be competitive. We don’t have a right to exist. We have to be competitive to own a company and move forward. We have a conversation with the workers on the ground and they buy.”
As for concerns about the economy, Barra said there are so many factors in the world that could swing the economy in either direction that it’s hard to predict where it will end up. He cited problems in the global supply chain, inflation and the war in Ukraine, all of which have lingering and potential effects on the economy.
“As of last week, we are still seeing strong demand for our vehicles, but we are cautious,” Barra said. “We’re seeing the steady rise in MSRPs (manufacturer suggested retail prices) has slowed a bit, but is well ahead of where we were pre-Covid. Incentives remain low.”
He added: “We’re building our budget to be very conservative in terms of spending, but still allow for upside. We’re going in very conservatively next year, but not so conservative that we can’t take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.”
As for GM’s salaried workforce, Barra said many are returning to newly renovated offices at the GM Global Technical Center in Warren three days a week starting Jan. 30. He said the staff he’s seen returning so far have told him, “I love it.” this.”
“It’s the energy and the vibe. You have to feed the culture, and you can’t do that if you’re not in person,” Barra said. “There are a lot of other GM employees who are coming back to work shortly after COVID. We think we can do better,” he said, adding that there are 30,000 parts in a car, and “You can’t do that on Zoom.”
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Contact Jamie L. LaReau at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more about General Motors and sign up for the cars newsletter. Subscribe.