Tension over General Motors’ decision to consider importing Chinese-made Buicks to the U.S. are colliding with contract talks between the automaker and the United Auto Workers about a month before a deadline to reach a new union deal.

The UAW on Tuesday blasted GM for weighing a plan to become the first Detroit automaker to sell a China-made vehicle in the U.S. The Buick Envision, a compact crossover currently assembled at a plant southeast of Beijing, could be sold in the U.S. by late 2016.

The union’s public statement makes the compact crossover a key bargaining chip in contract talks. UAW members are expected to vote this month on whether to authorize strikes in the event that negotiators fail to reach accords in September.

The UAW, which represents about 141,000 hourly workers at GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler, is hoping to secure the first pay raises for older members in more than a decade. But preserving jobs and securing new vehicles for U.S. plants is also a top goal.

“After the sacrifices made by U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. workforce to make General Motors the profitable quality company it is today, UAW members are disappointed with the tone-deaf speculation that the Envision would be imported from China,” said Cindy Estrada, UAW’s vice president in charge of GM talks.

Estrada’s statement also comes amid heightened political scrutiny over U.S. trade with China. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have railed against American politicians for giving China the upper hand.
The prospect of a China-made vehicle hitting U.S. showrooms could fuel the political fire already engulfing conversations over American competitiveness.

But the UAW’s immediate priority is securing new contracts for its workers after its current four-year deals expire Sept. 14. The union wants to reduce the pay gap between recent hires and longtime workers at GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler, while preserving yearly profit-sharing checks. The automakers want to limit labor costs.

Buick spokesman Nick Richards declined to comment on the UAW’s statement. On Monday he said talk of the Envision coming from China to the U.S. is speculation, but acknowledged GM is “looking at all the opportunities” for the vehicle.

GM has long emphasized that its goal is to build vehicles in the regions where it sells them. That keeps transportation costs low and mitigates the impact of currency fluctuation.

The automaker is expected to sell about 129,000 Envisions in China in 2017, according to IHS Automotive forecasts. In the U.S., where the vehicle would fill a crucial hole in Buick’s portfolio, the company is expected to sell about 35,000 of them in 2017, IHS projects.

Because volume is so much higher in China, where Buick is four times more popular than in the U.S., it may not make economic sense to assemble the vehicle in two different plants, analysts said.

If the crossover comes to the U.S., it will also test consumers’ willingness to accept vehicles made in China. Analysts say quality is on par with U.S.-made vehicles and don’t expect a backlash among consumers.

“It would be a bit of a political lightning rod, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan said. “But it’s something that I think would probably be short-lived.”

UAW’s Estrada dubbed the reports “especially alarming” and called on GM to “stand by its declaration that it will build where it sells.”

“The Envision should be made in the U.S. by the workforce that saved GM in its darkest time and UAW members intend to address this issue in contract talks,” she said.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.