Striking UAW members and supporters attend a speech by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders outside General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant in Detroit, Sept. 25, 2019. speech.

Michael Whelan/CNBC

DETROIT – UAW members overwhelmingly authorize union leaders to strike amid ongoing contract talks General Motors, Ford and starif guaranteed.

The union said on Friday that an average of 97 percent of the automaker’s combined membership approved the action, but the final vote was still being tallied. That’s in line with support during the negotiations four years ago, when 96 percent of workers who voted supported a strike mandate.

The “strike authorization vote” is part of the union’s constitution and is considered a procedural step in negotiations. Voting in favor of mandates is at an all-time high. A vote does not mean whether a strike will occur.

However, UAW President Shawn Fain has been more outspoken than past union leaders about his ability to use strikes as a weapon against companies during negotiations.

“The Big Three are our strike targets. It’s up to Ford, GM and Stellantis to strike or not because they know what our priorities are. We’ve made that clear,” Fein said.

These priorities were much richer than during previous contract negotiations between the parties. The union’s demands include a 46 per cent increase in wages, a return to traditional pensions, an increase in the cost of living, a reduction in the working week from 40 to 32 hours and increased benefits for retirees.

The UAW said 98 percent of Ford’s hourly workers and 99 percent of salaried workers voted for strike authorization. GM passed with 96 percent of the vote, while Stellantis approved the action with 95 percent. It was not immediately possible to know voter turnout and how many ballots still needed to be counted.

Strikes can take many forms, including national strikes, where all workers under a contract stop working, or targeted lockouts at certain factories over local contract issues. As Fein mentioned, a strike against all three automakers would be the most impactful for the union, but also the riskiest and most costly.

The UAW’s strike fund holds more than $825 million to pay eligible strike members. The strike pay for each member is $500 a week, up from $275 a week last year.

Assuming contracts cover 150,000 or so UAW members, strike wages would cost the union about $75 million a week. So the $825 million in funding would cover about 11 weeks. A word of caution: This does not include health care costs that unions will cover, such as interim COBRA programs, which could run out of money faster.

A nationwide or targeted strike at any one automaker could be damaging to business. GM said at the time that a 40-day strike against GM during the final round of negotiations in 2019 resulted in a loss of 300,000 vehicle production. It also cost the automaker $3.6 billion in lost earnings, GM said.

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