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White House EV push prompts concerns among unions as labor tensions rise

Aug 10, 2023


In a bid to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles (EVs), the White House is spearheading a multi-billion-dollar initiative that now also threatens to disrupt President Joe Biden’s pro-labor platform ahead of his 2024 reelection bid. The administration’s plan, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and curbing the reliance on traditional gas-powered vehicles, has caused concerns among American auto workers.

The workers fear that the shift away from gasoline-powered vehicles could result in job displacement and an unequal distribution of benefits. At the forefront of the concerns is the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, which has expressed reservations about the effects of this transition on their members. It has set the stage for the looming threat of a work stoppage on Sept. 14, when the union’s contracts with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, are set to expire.

“September 14th is a deadline, not a reference point, so it is in the best interest for this corporation to get down to business with our bargaining committee and get to work to resolve the demands of the membership,” UAW President Shawn Fain said. “It’s time to get to work. We have 63 days, and the clock is ticking.”

“To be clear, I and the UAW leadership support this transition, but it must be a just transition,” UAW Vice President Mike Booth said. “These must not only be union jobs, but they must be jobs that maintain the wages, benefits, and safety standards that generations of UAW members have fought for.”

Workers within EV factories are currently subject to different labor requirements compared to those in traditional auto plants, leading to wage disparities that the UAW claims are substantial.

According to the union, employees at EV battery plants earn roughly half the wages of senior unionized workers in assembly plants, raising concerns about income inequality within the industry. To address these issues, the UAW is advocating for the inclusion of these EV battery plant workers within the union.

“We have to be a lot more aggressive to negotiate better agreements, to set a standard that raises people up to a middle-class life,” Fain said of UAW’s intentions.

“People are being paid more at McDonald’s in Ohio than they are at the battery plant there,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said.

Making this conflict increasingly complicated is the shared ownership of many EV plants with battery companies. This joint ownership necessitates negotiations involving both automakers and battery manufacturers, adding another hurdle to labor discussions and negotiations.

As tensions escalate, this latest strike threat follows a month in which more work stoppages occurred in the United States than in all of 2022. A worrisome trend for the reelection efforts of Biden, who has referred to himself as the “most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.” 

“Labor knows that President Biden knows that he will not be reelected unless he gets their strong support,” said Erik Gordon, a University of Michigan business professor. “They’re going to make Biden dance to get the votes.”

So far, the UAW has withheld its endorsement of Biden as its 150,000 workers prepare for the possibility of hitting the picket line. However, this also potential strike comes as the electric vehicle industry reaches another crossroads.

Industry experts suggest that the initial wave of EV adoption, driven by early adopters, has plateaued. This shift is spurring automakers to adjust their efforts and cater to a more price-sensitive consumer base, which has also caused alterations to the electrification goals of many automotive leaders. Major automakers including Ford, GM, Mazda, Volkswagen, and Mercedes have already revisited their EV plans to align with this changing consumer landscape.

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