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Michigan governor warned auto industry on coronavirus: How they're reacting

Jamie L. Lareau, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Automotive News

DETROIT -- General Motors' Flint, Mich., assembly plant is running full-on as its 5,000 hourly workers push to meet pent-up demand for the heavy-duty Silverado and Sierra pickups GM builds there.

The plant, along with all of the Detroit Three's U.S. factories, sat idle for about eight weeks this spring as the coronavirus pandemic surged, putting production behind.

So Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's warning last week that she could shut down auto factories in Michigan once again if residents don't obey her order to wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19 has sent the auto industry into a tailspin.

"There's a future at risk. This is our future," said Eric Welter, UAW Local 598 shop chairman who represents the workers at Flint Assembly. "There is market demand right now. People want our product and if we don't deliver that product, that's our job security. So we have to push on, do it safely, but product demand is job security."

Last Thursday, the group representing Michigan's auto industry sent a pleading letter to Whitmer noting that "no major COVID cases are tied to any Michigan auto facility," crediting that to safety protocols in the plants.

"On behalf of Michigan's automotive leaders, I urge you to resist the closure of our manufacturing facilities and allow these demonstrated safety protocols to continue working to keep our businesses open," wrote Glenn Stevens, executive director, MICHauto, an economic development initiative of the Detroit Regional Chamber, dedicated to the Michigan automotive industry.

 

A painful ripple effect

The Detroit Three and the UAW devised the safety protocols during the factory shutdown period from late March to mid-May. During that time, 25 union members across Ford Motor, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Aramark died of COVID-19 complications. But since restarting the plants with the safety processes, there have been no coronavirus-related deaths, the UAW said.

But if the governor closes auto plants in Michigan, the ripple effect on the tens of thousands of jobs connected to those plants, such as at auto parts suppliers and car dealerships -- even in other states -- could be economically devastating.

Still, the governor did not mince words during a news conference in Lansing last Wednesday, saying: "If Michiganders don't mask up when we go out in public, cases could rise and we could be forced to close down more of our businesses, including auto manufacturing plants that employ thousands. A second wave of this virus could be absolutely devastating."

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