Executive comms lessons from the Stellantis-UAW strike negotiations

There’s a right and wrong way to handle labor communications.

On Monday, October 23, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union expanded its strike to include the plant that produces the Ram 1500 truck, adding nearly 7,000 employees in a continued effort to gain better pay and benefits from the automakers.

Reacting to the news that workers at the Sterling Heights auto plant were striking, Stellantis issued a press release with some strong words, to put it mildly.

We are outraged that the UAW has chosen to expand its strike action against Stellantis. Last Thursday morning, Stellantis presented a new, improved offer to the UAW, including 23% wage increases over the life of the contract, nearly a 50% increase in our contributions to the retirement savings plan, and additional job security protections for our employees. Following multiple conversations that appeared to be productive, we left the bargaining table expecting a counter-proposal, but have been waiting for one ever since.

First, let’s deconstruct the language used here. Stellantis didn’t pull any punches by using the word “outraged” right at the top. The statement went on to frame its profits as a loss for employees, too:

These actions not only decrease our market share, but also impact our profitability and therefore, our ability to compete, invest and preserve the record profit sharing payments our employees have enjoyed over the past two years.

Evoking its profit share as a benefit is a gutsy move — one that is undercut by comments from the UAW about Stellantis having the worst proposal for wage progression, temporary worker pay and conversion to full-time, cost-of-living adjustment and more.

If you’re going to make a comment about a specific benefit in union negotiations, be prepared with a counterstatement when it is inevitably challenged. Labor negotiations are a moment when the benefits and other elements of an employee value proposition is truly tested.

As communicators, it’s important to see all parts of an issue before developing a strategy. That’s why you must handle any union and strike messaging with both authority and humanity.

The right way to speak about labor issues 

If you’re working in executive comms, it’s essential to learn how to speak properly about labor issues in the months and years ahead. This is borne out by data — according to the NRLB, unfair labor practices went up 16% in the first six months of 2023, and ULP and union representation petitions went up 23% from 2021 to 2022, with little sign of slowing down.

. Even if they’re on the other side of the negotiating table, remember that labor representatives are communicators and human beings, too. Crafting your comms strategy with empathy and humanity in mind go a long way toward creating executive comms messages that are well received both internally and externally.

Stroking fear does not accomplish this goal, but that’s exactly what Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford did last week.

NBC News reports:

In remarks that illustrated their differing points of view and rhetorical styles, Ford said in a news conference that “this should not be Ford versus the UAW. It should be Ford and the UAW versus Toyota and Honda, Tesla and all the Chinese companies that want to enter our home market.”

Later that day, Fain countered that “it’s not the UAW and Ford against foreign automakers. It’s autoworkers everywhere against corporate greed.”

One could argue that Ford’s statement was an attempt to put UAW and American auto manufacturers on the same side, but the statement still fell flat because it didn’t put humanity and people first — instead deflecting and transferring the anger to foreign competitors.

An authentic, people-first focus

Great internal communicators know which leaders to put front and center when getting big, sensitive messages across. That often means choosing leaders with a personality that can inform your strategy, and vice-versa.

“Tailor your communication strategy to the personality of your leader, said Deanna Stevens Ulrich, associate director of digital content at Kent State University during the 2023 Ragan Social Media Conference.

“If it doesn’t sound or feel like your leader, they’re not going to believe you,” she added.

Remember that, even though they might seem adversarial, each side in labor negotiations is just looking out for its best interests.

Loretta Williams Green, founder and CEO of Women of Concern Professionals & Strategic Conscious Networking, executive communicators said that executive comms pros can increase the human focus of their messages by:

  • Defining your priorities as a leader.
  • Knowing that differences of opinion don’t need to mean distance.
  • Determining how your priorities affect others.

While there’s no telling exactly how the saga between the UAW and Stellantis will progress, you can learn from the comms approaches their leaders are taking. Considering how your organization’s leaders communicate with people-first, unifying language and a focus on the humanity of all involved make a positive reception of your messaging far more likely.

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.


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