Ford pushes for factory restart, union not so sure
Ford wants to reopen five North American assembly plants in April that were closed due to the threat of coronavirus.
The three Detroit automakers suspended production at North American factories a week ago under pressure from the United Auto Workers union, which had concerns about members working closely at work stations and possibly spreading the virus.
Union spokesman Brian Rothenberg said Thursday that the UAW is reviewing Ford’s announcement “with great concern and caution.”
The company says it’s aiming to reopen its factory in Hermosillo, Mexico, on April 6, followed on April 14 by its Dearborn, Michigan, truck plant, Kentucky truck plant in Louisville, the Ohio Assembly Plant near Cleveland, and the Transit van line at the Kansas City, Missouri, plant.
The company also wants to reopen U.S. parts-making plants in Michigan, Missouri, Kentucky and Ohio to feed the assembly factories on the same day.
Ford says in a prepared statement that it will introduce additional safety measures to protect workers, but said it would give details later. “We will continue to assess public health conditions as well as supplier readiness and will adjust plans as necessary,” the company said.
The Ford decision comes as the number of people infected by the virus spikes in Michigan. On Wednesday the state reported at least 2,294 infections and that the number of deaths nearly doubled from 24 to 43.
Two Detroit-area hospital systems said they are caring for more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients at 13 hospitals. At Beaumont Health and Henry Ford Health System, operating rooms were being converted into intensive care units and clinics had been turned into rooms for patients needing other medical care.
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he is hoping the United States will be reopened by Easter as he weighs how to relax nationwide social-distancing guidelines to put some workers back on the job during the coronavirus outbreak.
Dr. Betty Chu, of Henry Ford, predicted an “upcoming surge” in patients in Michigan.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist and senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins, said by April 14, experts will have a better idea what the trajectory is for new coronavirus cases and whether factories can be run with appropriate social distancing. It’s important, he said, to find was to operate factories safely. “I would say we have to think about what the path forward is going to be,” he said.
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The decisions on whether to reopen factories should be based on local virus transmissions and infections, he said, adding that the number of people infected is going to rise because of additional testing that is now being done.
Cole Stevenson, a worker who installs steering wheels at Ford’s huge pickup truck plant in Dearborn, said a reopening three weeks into the future is probably long enough to protect workers. “If they’ve researched up enough on how long the virus lives on surfaces and things like that, and they’re doing their part to keep that at a minimum, I guess I’m not too inclined to worry,” he said.
Stevenson said other workers may be more apprehensive about the virus, but he says he keeps his distance to guard against the coronavirus.
The Ford Motor factories, which largely make highly profitable pickup trucks, commercial vans and big SUVs, are key to Ford’s financial health. The Ford F-150 pickup made at the Dearborn Truck plant is the top-selling vehicle in America that’s responsible for much of the company’s profit.
Ford’s planned reopening date in the U.S. is just after a stay-at-home order from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expires at 11:59 p.m. April 13.
U.S. automakers book revenue when vehicles are shipped to dealers, so without production, the revenue stream is largely cut off.
The Ford factories were to be closed until March 30. General Motors said Thursday that it doesn’t have a firm date to reopen its North American factories. Fiat Chrysler said it had no announcement yet. Combined, the Detroit automakers have about 150,000 unionized factory workers.
Ford has about 56,000 UAW workers, and some members have been fearful of catching the virus and taking it home to their families. Two union workers from Fiat Chrysler plants in the Detroit area and Kokomo, Indiana, have died this week from complications due to the virus, but it’s not clear whether they got it at the factories or elsewhere.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
The effort to reopen the plants comes as Amazon and other large warehouses continue operations, although some of the goods they’re distributing are considered essential.
Also on Thursday, Honda said it too was pushing to re-open its U.S. and Canadian factories, starting April 7. The Japanese automaker closed its factories Monday and had planned to start making vehicles again on March 31.