Barely 24 hours before the contract deadline, the United Auto Workers leader said Wednesday that his members were prepared for a strike against the three Detroit automakers — first at a limited number of factories, with the walkout expanding if talks remain bogged down.
The U.A.W. president, Shawn Fain, also ruled out any extension of the existing four-year contracts with General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis after they expire on Thursday night. “September 14 is a deadline, not a reference point,” he declared in an address to union members on Facebook Live.
He said the initial strike locations would be “limited and targeted,” and would be communicated to members on Thursday night ahead of a Friday walkout.
This tactic — a departure from the union’s usual strategy of staging an all-out strike against a single automaker chosen as a target — is intended to give the U.A.W. negotiators increased leverage in the talks, and to keep the manufacturers off balance.
“It will keep them guessing on what’s going to happen next,” Mr. Fain said.
Striking at even a handful of plants would disrupt the automakers’ production while ensuring that a large portion of the 150,000 U.A.W. members at the three companies continued to work and receive paychecks.
The union plans to pay striking workers $500 per week and cover the cost of their health insurance premiums. The union has a strike fund of $825 million, which would cover payments to workers in a full strike against all three companies for about three months.
In its initial proposal to the companies, the union demanded a 40 percent increase in wages over four years, on the premise that pay packages of the companies’ chief executives have on average risen that much over the last four years. The union has also sought regular cost-of-living adjustments that would nudge wages higher in response to inflation.
The union is also seeking pensions for all workers, improved retiree benefits, shorter work hours and an end to a tiered wage system that starts new hires at about half the top U.A.W. wage of $32 an hour.
The companies — each negotiating separately with the union — have made counterproposals raising wages by roughly half what the union is asking, according to Mr. Fain, and have done even less to satisfy the other demands.
After Mr. Fain’s announcement, General Motors issued a statement saying in part: “We continue to bargain directly and in good faith with the U.A.W. and have presented additional strong offers. We are making progress in key areas.”
Declaring that “the future of our industry is at stake,” Ford said it was “ready to reach a deal,” adding, “We should be working creatively to solve hard problems rather than planning strikes and P.R. events.”
Stellantis said it had presented its latest offer to the union on Tuesday. “Our focus remains on bargaining in good faith to have a tentative agreement on the table before tomorrow’s deadline,” the company said.
A week ago, the U.A.W. filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board saying G.M. and Stellantis had failed to respond to the union’s proposals and were bargaining unfairly.
Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan who follows the auto industry, said a strike was very likely. “I think they can reach an agreement on wages,” he said, “but these other issues are complicated and can’t be resolved in the last 36 hours by splitting the difference.”
Mr. Fain’s 40-minute address was highlighted by citations from the Bible; memories of his grandfather, who was also a union autoworker; and plenty of fiery language.
“For the last 40 years, the billionaire class has been taking everything and leaving everybody else to fight for the scraps,” he exclaimed at one point. “We are not the problem. Corporate greed is the problem.”
He also showed a series of slides listing the union’s demands for wages, benefits, job security and other issues alongside what he said were the companies’ responses. And he contrasted his leadership team’s approach to the negotiations with that of the predecessors they ousted last year.
In the past, the U.A.W. leadership typically gave union members little information on the state of the negotiations until a tentative agreement was reached. Mr. Fain said that members were “fed up with the company-union philosophy” and that dealings with the companies would be transparent to union members, “not behind closed doors as in the past.”
The prospect of a large-scale strike comes as the automakers are reaping near-record profits but also contending with the transition to electric vehicles. G.M., Ford and Stellantis — the parent of Chrysler — are investing tens of billions of dollars to develop new technologies and electric models, build new battery plants, and retool older factories.
The union is concerned about the potential loss of jobs as a result of the transition. Electric vehicles — which don’t have components like transmissions or fuel systems — require fewer workers to produce.
All three companies are also building battery plants with partners that are not automatically covered by the U.A.W. contract. Workers at one G.M. battery plant in Ohio that started production late last year voted to join the U.A.W. and are negotiating a contract of their own with the company.
Kurtis Lee contributed reporting.