(DETROIT) — The Detroit Auto Show is underway this week, against the backdrop of an historic strike effort from unionized auto workers.
Almost every year since 1907, Detroit has played host to a trade show that attracts executives, celebrities, politicians, journalists, and everyday enthusiasts from around the car world, all of whom descend on the city’s Huntington Place convention center to check out the latest the automotive industry has to offer. At this year’s show, Ford pulled the wraps off an updated F-150 pickup truck, and GMC showed off a new Acadia SUV.
Last year, Ford’s latest Mustang made its debut at the show, and President Biden was one of several high-profile attendees.
While other cities regularly host big auto shows, experts say Detroit has long been the most influential in the American car industry.
“It was the biggest, it had the most people, it had just the most excitement,” Jessica Caldwell, Director of Insights at Edmunds, says of past Detroit Auto Shows.
But this year, the event is confronting a UAW strike that has sent shockwaves through the automotive industry.
For the first time in its history, union auto workers are striking all “Big Three” American automakers simultaneously. The strike could see up to 146,000 unionized auto workers walk off the job at General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. And for a show that’s estimated to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the local economy, it comes at a critical moment.
Caldwell says the strike will likely have an impact on attendance at the 2023 Detroit Auto Show, especially considering the city’s close ties to the auto industry.
“Here in Detroit, [most people] know the intricacies of the auto industry and realize what some of the issues are with these workers – perhaps even know someone in the auto industry themselves.”
UAW workers are striking for increased wages and the restoration of certain benefits. They argue their proposals are fair given the profits Big Three automakers have seen in recent years, and are proportional to the wage and benefit increases the executives at their respective companies have seen. The automakers have argued they need that money to aid the transition to electric vehicles, and to be competitive against carmakers that don’t have unionized workforces.
“Strikes are generally not happy events and auto shows are happy events.” says Caldwell, “So it is kind of a push-pull here.”
The UAW strike isn’t the only challenge the Detroit Auto Show is facing.
“The Detroit Auto Show is still reeling and trying to recover from the pandemic,” says Mike Martinez, a reporter with Automotive News.
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to cancel the 2020 and 2021 iterations of the show, the event returned in 2022 with a new, smaller footprint that added outdoor activities. That shows failed to attract crowds seen at earlier Detroit Auto Shows. Thad Szott, the President of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, estimated that the 2022 show drew in between 300,000 and 500,000 attendees. That’s a far cry from the nearly 775,000 people it attracted in 2019.
Regardless, the updated format is in place again for 2023. Ford, this year, unveiled the latest F-150 outdoors at the nearby Hart Plaza. The event featured live music, food trucks, and a lineup of antique Ford pickup trucks.
“It’s smaller scale than it used to be,” says Martinez. “So it’s still trying to gain some publicity and draw in attendees, draw in media.”
Jessica Caldwell says the show’s smaller stature was evident even during the media preview days, which made the event feel “almost like a regional show.”
“We’re really only seeing news from the Detroit automakers: from Ford, from General Motors, from Stellantis,” says Caldwell.
“Normally you would see news from, you know, maybe a Honda or a Hyundai … we’re not seeing that this year,” says Caldwell.
In addition to Ford’s updated F-150 and GMC’s new Acadia, Cadillac unveiled a facelifted CT5 sedan, and Jeep similarly refreshed its Gladiator pickup. Most of the announcements are considered subtle updates to existing products. No foreign automakers debuted new vehicles at the show.
In an emailed statement, Rod Alberts, the Executive Director of the Detroit Auto Show, told ABC News his organization is “invested in and wholeheartedly support[s] the auto industry.”
“At the Detroit Auto Show, we’re focused on public days and creating an amazing and unique show experience for attendees that demonstrates our unwavering commitment to Detroit and our love of cars,” Alberts says.
General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis declined to comment on the strike’s impact on the Detroit Auto Show.
Caldwell says the Detroit Auto Show’s shrinking role is part of a larger trend in the car industry, which has seen automakers scale back appearances at trade shows in favor of highly-produced events that are live streamed online.
“All auto shows have changed to be much quieter affairs,” says Caldwell. “Automakers … they do their big reveals in their own spaces, on their own time. A lot of times over social media, so that has really changed things.”
Ford, in 2020, unveiled the new Bronco online. Nissan hosted a similar online event for the launch of the latest “Z” sports car the following year.
Even still, some UAW members are finding the Detroit Auto Show beneficial to their cause, even at its reduced scale.
“We’re getting visibility because of the auto show,” says Kenneth Bland, a BlueCross BlueShield employee who is represented by the UAW and also on strike in Detroit.
“I like autos, I love cars,” he says.
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