FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2018, file photo a United Auto Workers assemblymen work on a 2018 Ford F-150 trucks being assembled at the Ford Rouge assembly plant in Dearborn, Mich. The United Auto Workers union wants Detroit's three automakers to shut down their factories for two weeks to keep its members safe from the spreading coronavirus. But union President Rory Gamble says in an email to members obtained by The Associated Press that the companies were not willing to shut factories down. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2018, file photo a United Auto Workers assemblymen work on a 2018 Ford F-150 trucks being assembled at the Ford Rouge assembly plant in Dearborn, Mich. The United Auto Workers union wants Detroit's three automakers to shut down their factories for two weeks to keep its members safe from the spreading coronavirus. But union President Rory Gamble says in an email to members obtained by The Associated Press that the companies were not willing to shut factories down. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

The Big Three automakers have Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s clear to open May 11. That’s a full week earlier than their anticipated start date.

DETROIT, MI — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s latest order signed Thursday will allow manufacturing workers, including those at Michigan’s Big Three automakers, to resume work on Monday, May 11 as part of her MI Safe Start Plan.

The Big Three automakers (Fiat-Chrysler, Ford and General Motors) had all been negotiating with their unions, most notably the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) over when to resume operations. As of Tuesday, the UAW seemed to support the mid-May start date.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-77 Thursday, allowing manufacturing to resume as early as Monday while extending the overall coronavirus protections through May 28.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but this is an important step forward on our MI Safe Start plan to re-engage our economy safely and responsibly,” Whitmer said. “As we continue to phase in sectors of our economy, I will keep working around the clock to ensure our businesses adopt best practices to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19. When we all keep doing our part, we can reduce the risk of a second wave and re-engage our economy safely and responsibly.”

Fiat-Chrysler CEO Mike Manley admitted a lot of the plan depends on if Whitmer will allow manufacturing to resume in the next phase of economic re-engagement according to the state’s “MI Safe Start” plan. As The ‘Gander reported, Whitmer has been seriously evaluating that exact question. 

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Whitmer Works to Protect Employees 

Something Whitmer is looking for is that UAW ensures its members feel safe. 

To that end, UAW has worked with the Big Three to develop safety precautions. Their agreement allows the manufacturers to set the start date, but empowers unions to file complaints and close a factory if it becomes a hotbed for the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

“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.”

That capacity to test was part of Gov. Whitmer’s long-term plans to re-engage sectors of the economy, as were workplace best practices like those UAW and the Big Three automakers hammered out. And Gamble said UAW will hold to those best practices strictly. 

“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 statement.

Is Michigan Ready for Re-engagement?

The easing of restrictions that might allow the plans to re-engage the auto industry come as a very vocal minority of Michiganders and national political pressure in part drive Whitmer to accelerate plans to re-engage the state’s various economic sectors. MI Safe Start was a measured and flexible roadmap toward that end, but isn’t fast enough for some political voices. The ‘Gander reports Whitmer is being sued by, among many others, the Republican-held Michigan Legislature to try and force greater acceleration of re-engagement. 

Workplace best practices will be an important mitigation tool if, as many infectious disease experts caution, a rapid re-engagement causes a second wave of the virus to spike and drastically increase projected deaths over the summer. 

As The ‘Gander has reported, Michigan is the deadliest state to contract the coronavirus in, and is one of the two states farthest from meeting the White House’s gating criteria for re-engagement, so a measured and flexible response like Mi Safe Start is intended to balance concerns like those of the Big Three automakers with the best epidemiological science to determine a course of action.

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That said, political pressure to re-engage major sectors of Michigan’s economy like the Big Three will only continue to mount as time presses on, and if the UAW is confident in the workplace best practices developed in tandem with management there may be no better time to test-drive the new normal than mid-May. 

A Key Industry Staying Strong 

Automakers are a major source of jobs in Michigan and rely on massive supply chains that, also, would need to be re-engaged meaning their return to service could have great knock-on impacts across the state and even global economies. 

Factories have been idle since March, The “Gander reports, and these long months have set the Big Three up for hard second quarters this year, but a combination of good strategy and possible programs to help reignite the industry could help turn things around by the end of the year. 

While Ford had some heavy expenses and a hard first quarter, it took out loans and sold off some bonds to make sure it had the money it needed to weather the storm. GM also has the money to weather the storm thanks in no small part to aggressive cost-cutting over the past several years. Both should have the cash needed to restart operations smoothly. 

Provided, of course, employees can remain safe and healthy. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.