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Shareholders and top bosses at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis have fared far better than workers over the past five years as the U.S. auto industry staged a stunning recovery from the 2008 financial crash, according to a Financial Times analysis.

As the strike called by the United Auto Workers union enters its second week, the industry is experiencing an upswing that is strengthening the union’s position in negotiations. The filings show shareholders have received nearly $85 billion from the Detroit Three through dividends and buybacks since the crisis.

On Friday, the UAW expanded the strikes, hitting GM and Stellantis harder. At the same time, she refrained from increasing pressure on Ford’s operations after the company increased its wage offer.

All three automakers continue to engage in heated collective bargaining with the union, arguing that they need resources to invest in electric vehicles and compete in an increasingly tough global market.

But the UAW points to stagnant wages and fears that the shift to electric vehicles, which require fewer workers to assemble and remove batteries from non-union factories, threatens the future of organized labor at U.S. automakers.

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Philippe Houchois, a global auto analyst at Jefferies, said record automakers’ profits had pushed manufacturers into a “corner” in talks.

Steep increases in executive pay, particularly at a time when most workers are suffering the effects of rising inflation, make calls for higher wages “such an easy narrative for the UAW to sell,” he adds.

In real terms, wages for the average worker at all three automakers fell by about 20 percent in the five years ending in 2022 – largely driven by a decline in wages at Ford.

But automakers warn that the union’s original demand for a 40 percent increase – now reduced to 36 percent – puts manufacturers’ financial health at risk.

Ford CEO Jim Farley said the company would have been “bankrupt by now” if it had paid the wages demanded by the UAW.

The automakers have not publicly said how much the UAW’s demand would cost them. Farley estimated that Ford’s combined profit of $30 billion over the past four years would have instead been a loss of $15 billion, suggesting a gap of $45 billion, while sources close to GM said a lot higher cost burden of 80 to 100 billion US dollars.


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Of the $84.9 billion returned to investors since the crash, $52.7 billion came from dividends and $32.6 billion from stock buybacks.

This included a one-time $3.5 billion dividend from Fiat Chrysler before its merger with PSA to form Stellantis in 2020 to offset the value of the merging companies.

A large portion of the total comes from GM’s $26.3 billion stock buyback program, which the company ran largely from 2012 to 2017 and flourished in the years following bankruptcy.

The payments have also puzzled observers because they come at a time when automakers need to pour billions into electric cars to compete with Tesla.

“People will say, ‘You told us electric vehicles would be expensive, but you wasted so much money on buybacks,’” Houchois notes.


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The three companies’ combined profits were $70.3 billion in 2021 and 2022, a figure that would have been even higher if Ford had written down startup Rivian and self-driving company Argo last year AI would not have reported a loss of $2 billion.

The gains were driven by rising prices as chronic global parts shortages collided with robust demand in the wake of the pandemic.

For GM, 2021 was the most profitable year since bankruptcy in 2009, with revenues of $10 billion. Stellantis – which also owns France’s PSA after merging in 2019 – posted a record-breaking $17.7 billion in net profit last year US dollar, which came almost exclusively from North America.

Even as the number of cars sold declined, the three automakers’ combined revenues reached $4 trillion over the past decade.


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A sore point for the UAW has been the rising profits of top executives, whose compensation is often tied to profits or other performance indicators such as shareholder returns.

There are some mitigating factors. Stellantis doubled in size after merging with PSA and changed its CEO, with Peugeot’s Carlos Tavares leading the new business, replacing Fiat Chrysler’s Mike Manley.

Similarly, Ford replaced Jim Hackett with Jim Farley in 2020, resulting in an increase in 2020 payroll.

At GM, CEO Mary Barra’s salary rose 11 percent in real terms in the five years to 2022, while there was a 10 percent decline for the regular worker.

The 29 percent wage increase at Stellantis is offset by a 9 percent decrease in average employee wages after taking inflation into account.

Top executive salaries are not limited to the automotive industry and depend heavily on larger economic factors.

“In 2021, as the economy boomed following the start of the pandemic in 2020, 82.5 percent of CEOs received above-target bonuses,” says compensation and data group Equilar.

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