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Big 3 Automakers Shut Down as Coronavirus Outbreak Grinds US Industry to a Halt

"Today's action is the prudent thing to do."

Workers leave Fiat Chrysler Warren Truck Assembly on March 18, 2020 after the Detroit three automakers agreed to UAW demands to shut down all North America plants as a precaution against coronavirus.

Workers leave Fiat Chrysler Warren Truck Assembly on March 18, 2020 after the Detroit three automakers agreed to UAW demands to shut down all North America plants as a precaution against coronavirus. (Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

The country's "Big Three" automakers—Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler—are suspending production this week in the interest of protecting workers from the coronavirus outbreak that has swept across the world and led to an economic slowdown as nations around the globe struggle to contain the deadly disease.

"Today's action is the prudent thing to do," United Auto Workers president Rory Gamble said in a statement. "By taking a shutdown and working through next steps, we protect UAW members, their families, and the community."

Earlier Wednesday, workers at Fiat Chrysler (FCA) stopped the production line after hearing that one of their coworkers tested positive for the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. The stoppage forced FCA to shut the plant down Wednesday out of concern for public health. 

Ford's shutdown will begin after the evening shift on Thursday; GM will cease production on Wednesday. 

The moves won praise from Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.). 

"Thank God the Big Three have listened to their employees and shut down production temporarily due to #COVID19," Levin tweeted. "It shouldn't have taken direct action by FCA workers to get it done, but I'm so proud of them for pushing the issue of putting workers' health and safety first."

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"GM and the UAW have always put the health and safety of the people entering GM plants first, and we have agreed to a systematic, orderly suspension of production to aid in fighting COVID-19/coronavirus," GM chairman and CEO Mary Barra said Wednesday. "We have been taking extraordinary precautions around the world to keep our plant environments safe and recent developments in North America make it clear this is the right thing to do now."

As the Associated Press reported, the shutdowns will put thousands out of work, though the union will protect their pay as much as possible:

The move would idle about 150,000 workers, who are likely to receive supplemental pay in addition to unemployment benefits.

Workers at Elon Musk's Tesla, which is not unionized, were reportedly expected to come into work unless they were already ill. 

The UAW and the automakers intend to work together to reopen the factories as soon as possible. 

"We're continuing to work closely with union leaders, especially the United Auto Workers, to find ways to help keep our workforce healthy and safe—even as we look at solutions for continuing to provide the vehicles customers really want and need," Ford president of North America Kumar Galhotra said in a statement. "In these unprecedented times, we're exploring unique and creative solutions to support our workforce, customers, dealers, suppliers, and communities."

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