DETROIT — Major U.S. automakers are planning to reopen North American factories within two weeks, potentially putting thousands of workers back on the assembly line as part of a gradual return to normality.
Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley said on an earnings conference call Tuesday his company plans to start reopening factories May 18, though that depends on an easing of government restrictions.
Right now, Michigan’s shelter-at-home order is in effect until May 15.
Detroit automakers will likely be on the same timetable because their workers are represented by the same union.
The United Auto Workers union on Tuesday appeared to be onboard.
Detroit automakers employ about 150,000 factory workers in the United States alone. Auto plants have been shut since mid-March because of the outbreak. At least 25 employees at auto facilities represented by the UAW have died as a result of COVID-19, although it’s not known if they were infected at work.
Manley said a lot depends on whether Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allows factories to reopen.
Last week, Whitmer hinted that auto plants may soon reopen as the curve of cases continues to flatten. She said the reopening could take place as long as the UAW can ensure employees feel safe.
The UAW said in a prepared statement that workers will return to auto plants starting May 18, and it has agreed on safety procedures to protect them. Under its contracts with Fiat Chrysler, General Motors and Ford, the companies have authority to pick restart dates. But the union can file grievances and seek closures if the virus spreads at factories.
“We all knew this day would come,” union President Rory Gamble said Tuesday. “We continue to advocate for as much testing as possible at the current time and eventually full-testing when available.”
Gamble said his family will be among those returning to work, and the union will make sure safety guidelines will be followed.
“The UAW will fulfill its role to continue to actively monitor and aggressively respond regarding all issues impacting the health and safety of UAW members in whatever manner may be necessary as we return to the worksite,” Gamble said in a prepared statement.
Divisions over when to start to reopen economies on the state level spilled over in Michigan last week when armed protesters entered Michigan’s Capitol building last week. The Republican-led state legislature refused to extend Michigan’s coronavirus emergency declaration. They authorized a lawsuit challenging Whitmer’s authority and actions to combat the pandemic.
Whitmer faces pressure from the White House to relax restrictions as well.
Auto manufacturing is a major economic driver in Michigan, of course, and the state is facing a crippling cutoff in revenue with the plants closed.