Four years of strong profits for U.S. automakers all but ensure the United Auto Workers will seek significant hourly wage increases for the union's rank-and-file as contract talks continue. And that's expected to be a sticking point as General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles prepare for a changing industry, slowing sales and an economic downturn.

The UAW is eager to lock in wage gains and other benefits for the next four years. That comes as hourly labor costs for the Detroit Three continue to rise, widening the gap separating them from non-union, foreign-owned competition in the United States.

How and where bargainers strike a balance both can live with — and sell to both investors and union members — holds major implications for the automakers’ ability to compete amid shifting priorities and greater calls for cash as they invest in autonomy and electrification.

Experts say automakers have several options other than wage increases to find that balance: bigger signing bonuses; uncapped profit sharing or more generous profit-sharing formulas; improved benefits; and promises of product allocation for certain plants.