The United Auto Workers union said on Friday that 97 percent of its members had voted to authorize strikes against General Motors, Ford Motor, and Stellantis if the union and companies were unable to negotiate new labor contracts.
The result gives the union’s president, Shawn Fain, the power to tell workers to walk off the job once the current contracts expire on Sept. 14.
Strike authorization votes are normally formalities that pass by significant margins and do not ensure strikes. But this vote comes as the newly energized U.A.W. takes a more assertive stance with automakers, part of a larger shift in organized labor.
G.M., Ford, and Stellantis have posted strong profits for about a decade. That has emboldened Mr. Fain and his members to call for substantial wage increases, cost-of-living adjustments, and improved pensions and health care benefits.
“This is our time to take back what we are owed,” he said on Facebook Live on Friday. “We are united, and we are not afraid,” he added.
Mr. Fain, who was narrowly elected president this year in the union’s first direct election of its top leaders, appears to have united the union’s members. He appeared at rallies with workers in Detroit on Wednesday and in Louisville, Ky., on Thursday and Friday. About a dozen similar events are planned over the next two weeks. Such events were rare in contract talks over the last 20 years.
“There’s nervousness, but there’s excitement,” Luigi Gjokaj, a vice president at U.A.W. Local 51, said at the Detroit rally. “If the company comes to the table and they’re fair, we’ll have an agreement. If it has to go to a strike, we are prepared.”
Mr. Fain spoke to about 100 workers at that rally from the bed of a pickup truck just outside a Stellantis plant that makes the Jeep Wagoneer, a highly profitable sport utility vehicle.
“We’re not asking to be millionaires,” he said to loud cheers. “We just want our fair share.”
In a statement after the result of the strike vote was announced, Ford said it hoped to work with the U.A.W. toward “creative solutions during this time when our dramatically changing industry needs a skilled and competitive work force more than ever.”
This month, Mr. Fain sent the companies a list of demands, including the possibility of working only four days a week and wage increases of 40 percent, noting that the chief executives of G.M., Ford, and Stellantis have been awarded bigger compensation packages over the last four years. New hires at auto plants start at about $16 an hour and over several years can work their way up to the $32 an hour earned by veteran workers.
G.M., Ford, and Stellantis have suggested they will probably agree to some form of higher wages. In a fresh indication of how the talks may go, an Ohio battery plant owned jointly by G.M. and LG Energy Solution, a South Korean battery maker, agreed on Thursday to increase the wages of 1,900 U.A.W. workers by 25 percent on average.
Mr. Fain had repeatedly criticized wages at the plant, which had started at about $16 an hour, as being too low. The plant is covered by a separate bargaining agreement from the one the union is negotiating for workers in G.M.’s wholly-owned plants. Wages there will now start at about $20 an hour.
The three manufacturers aim to minimize increases in labor costs in any new contract because they are spending tens of billions of dollars on a momentous transition to electric vehicles. The companies have suggested that agreeing to all or most of Mr. Fain’s demands would leave them at a competitive disadvantage against Tesla, the dominant maker of electric cars, and European and Asian automakers that operate nonunion plants in the United States.
President Biden told reporters on Friday that he was “concerned” about a potential strike by autoworkers. “I’m talking with the U.A.W.,” he said.
Mr. Biden said the transition to electric vehicles should not shortchange workers. “I think that there should be a circumstance where jobs that are being displaced are replaced with new jobs,” he said, adding that the pay for those new jobs “should be commensurate.”
Former President Donald J. Trump, who is the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, has seized on autoworkers’ unease about the switch to electric vehicles to court the U.A.W., which typically backs Democrats but has declined to endorse Mr. Biden so far.
Despite the costs of investing in electrification, the three automakers are enjoying healthy profits.
G.M. said in July that it expected to earn more than $9.3 billion this year, about $1 billion more than a previous forecast. Stellantis, which is based in Amsterdam and owns Chrysler, Jeep, Ram, and other auto brands, made 11 billion euros (about $11.9 billion) in the first half of this year, a record. Ford expects earnings before taxes of $11 billion to $12 billion this year. All three companies make most of their profits in North America.
“Regardless of what other opinions might be, business profits enable future investments, which support long-term job security and opportunities for all,” said Gerald Johnson, G.M.’s executive vice president for global manufacturing and sustainability, in a video message to employees last week.
The U.A.W. typically names one company that it will focus on in negotiations and make the target of a strike if it cannot reach an agreement. The union has not done so thus far, although Mr. Fain has publicly sparred the most with Stellantis.
After Mr. Fain presented his demands, Stellantis responded with proposals that would increase how much workers contributed to the cost of health care, reduce the company’s contributions to retirement accounts, and allow the company to close plants temporarily with little advance notice.
In a Facebook video, Mr. Fain angrily denounced the Stellantis proposals and tossed a copy in a wastebasket. “That’s where it belongs, the trash, because that’s what it is,” he said.
Stellantis’s chief operating officer for North America, Mark Stewart, said in a letter to employees that he was “incredibly disappointed” by Mr. Fain’s remarks. “The theatrics and personal insults will not help us reach an agreement,” Mr. Stewart said.
Tensions between the U.A.W. and Stellantis, which was formed in the 2021 merger of Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot S.A., have been simmering since the automaker idled a Jeep plant in Illinois. One of Mr. Fain’s key objectives is getting the company to reopen the factory.