Autoworkers strike brings EV issues to fore

The United Auto Workers (UAW) strike is bringing disputes over electric vehicles (EVs) into the spotlight, testing the Biden administration’s balancing act between two key Democratic constituencies.

The Democratic party has often had to walk a tightrope to address supporters who rank climate change as a top concern while also reassuring union members in the automotive and energy industries.

The UAW’s decision to strike, in part over a union push for what UAW President Shawn Fain has called a “just transition” that protects workers amid the shift to electric vehicles, is putting new pressure on those tensions in a way experts say could drive a wedge between the constituencies — or bring them together.

“I think there’s always been that tension between the labor movement and the environmental groups,” said Marick Masters, a professor of business at Wayne State University. “I think the environmental group is the dominant group within that alliance … the forces behind electrification of the vehicle fleet are almost unstoppable within the Democratic Party.”

Bridging the gap, he said, is “a matter of just trying to do as much as you possibly can to make the transition as fair and just as possible, [which] will require the administration to make more accommodation to labor.”

“How that will be done is uncertain,” he added.

About 13,000 UAW members went on strike at midnight Friday after the union and three major Detroit automakers — General Motors, Stellantis and Ford — could not reach an agreement. The stalemate largely relates to disagreements over wages, benefits and job protections, but the transition to electric vehicles also played a major role.

The electric vehicle issue is “the backdrop to everything,” Masters said, “in terms of what the companies can afford to give the unions in this contract, in terms of where the union needs to go in organizing autoworkers in the future.”

In particular, Masters said, Tesla’s status as both a nonunion company and the largest U.S. electric vehicle manufacturer is an elephant in the room for union autoworkers.

“It’s something they’re very concerned about, what the overall effect might be in depressing wages in the industry,” he said.

The Biden administration has set ambitious electrification targets as part of its climate goals, saying that it aims to achieve those goals with high-paying union jobs.

Workers, however, have raised concerns that automakers are using the shift to electric vehicles to undercut wages. A whitepaper from researchers at the University of Houston indicated that for workers at existing EV facilities, “the median salary is … considerably lower than what the current [union] jobs are,” said co-author Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a professor of petroleum engineering at the university.

“That is a big reflection of where the UAW is coming into this whole conversation,” Krishnamoorti told The Hill. “One of the big opportunities everybody’s been hoping for has been this big penetration of EVs coming into the market over the next five years being catalyzed by what the Big 3 are doing,” referring to the three major automakers.

An extended strike, he added, could “put a big dent” in U.S. progress on the transition to electric vehicles.

“The Teslas of the world aren’t capable of delivering the magnitude that we need, as well as the price point that the consumer demands,” he said.

The UAW, which endorsed Biden in 2020, has yet to make an endorsement in the 2024 race, calling for more support from the White House amid the transition to EV before they back the president.

Republicans have sought to capitalize on these worker frustrations, with former President Trump hitting Biden over the issue in an appeal to voters in the pivotal swing state of Michigan as he seeks another term in the White House.

But Trevor Dolan, the industry and workforce policy lead at conservation group Evergreen Action, told The Hill the strike “is not a negotiation with President Biden or the Democratic party” — or a dispute between environmental and labor interests.

“The UAW is not saying ‘we want to slow down the transition to electric vehicles;’ they’re saying that in the transition … we don’t want to see a backslide” by automakers, Dolan said.

Evergreen Action was one of several progressive and environmental organizations to sign a statement calling on the automakers to protect UAW jobs earlier this week.

“What’s at issue in the negotiations is workers and the climate movement more broadly are confronting corporate greed here,” Dolan said. “The Big 3 are trying to undercut existing master agreements [among union autoworkers].”

Fain himself has praised the Biden administration for “reject[ing] the false choice between a good job and a green job.”

In fact, the strike is working toward making Biden’s goals for both the climate and labor a reality, said Matthew Huber, a professor of geography in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

“The UAW … strike action is ultimately trying to realize one of the Biden Administration’s core policy goals and political selling points: you can have good, family-sustaining union jobs alongside climate action. The problem is the automakers see EV production as a way to trim labor costs and shift production to non-union plants,” Huber said.

“The UAW’s ultimate proposal is that if it takes less labor to produce EVs, why not shorten working hours and maintain pay with the cost of living?” he added. “This would certainly lend credence to the Biden Administration’s claim that climate action can improve working and middle class lives.”

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