A week after meeting with members of the Biden administration, the new leader of the United Auto Workers Union is threatening to withhold his support for the president’s reelection bid.
UAW President Shawn Fain wants a “just transition” to battery-electric vehicles, a concern that translates into a demand for more union jobs.
“The federal government is pouring billions into the electric vehicle transition, with no strings attached and no commitment to workers,” Fain wrote to UAW workers. “The EV transition is at serious risk of becoming a race to the bottom. We want to see national leadership have our back on this before we make any commitments.”
Biden pushes for an EV transition
Under President Joe Biden, the federal government is aggressively pushing for a transition to EVs. New emissions standards announced last month will require about two-thirds of the new vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2031 to produce zero emissions. That would limit them to electric or hydrogen fuel-cell technologies.
The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress last August, meanwhile, contains a number of strictures meant not only to boost sales of EVs but also to shift production of those vehicles to the U.S. Revised incentives require they be produced in North America along with their batteries. And manufacturers must source key components, including lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese, locally, as well.
Since the IRA was passed, at least 17 new U.S. battery plants have been announced, according to Bank of America Research. The U.S. Department of Energy now forecasts that domestic sources will produce around 1 terawatt-hour of automotive batteries by 2030, around 20 times more output than in 2022.
But union leaders worry they could be left out
But the real issue for the UAW, according to analysts, is not just getting more EV and battery production to come to the U.S. but to ensure that production is handled by union workers.
To date, only the American assembly plants operated by Detroit’s Big Three — General Motors, Ford and the U.S. side of Stellantis — have been organized. And only one new battery plant has UAW representation, the GM/LG Energy Solution Ultium Cells LLC factory near Lordstown, Ohio.
It is expected — but yet to be confirmed — that other Big Three battery plants will also be manned by UAW employees. That will depend upon likely representation votes.
The UAW’s ongoing struggle
The Detroit-based union has struggled for decades to win over workers at foreign-owned auto assembly plants, such as the Nissan factory in Smyrna, Tennessee. It has lost a number of votes, most recently at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.
EVs are expected to be a hot-button issue when the UAW returns to the bargaining table with the Detroit automakers this summer because they generally require less labor to produce. The union fears this will result in fewer jobs as the industry shifts from internal combustion to battery-electric drive technology.
But the Detroit Big Three hope to boost productivity in order to remain competitive with not only foreign, non-union EV plants but with Tesla, the only manufacturer currently earning a profit on its battery-electric vehicles.
A ‘just transition”
Reporting on his meeting with lawmakers and the Biden administration last week, Fain wrote, “We were very adamant that if the government is going to funnel billions in taxpayer money to these companies, the workers must be compensated with top wages and benefits.”
“A ‘just transition,’” he added, “has to include standards for our members and future workers.”
Exactly what Fain wants that to translate into is uncertain. And, with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, it has limited legislative options available to lend support to union organizing efforts.
Get ready to “rumble”
Fain is himself under pressure to deliver for his membership after narrowly winning the UAW leadership role in a runoff election. He has been sounding an aggressive tone in preparation for this summer’s contract talks, recently telling workers to be ready to “rumble” if they don’t win what the UAW seeks from the negotiations.
But whether the new union chief will continue to withhold support for Biden’s reelection bid is uncertain. In his letter to union members, Fain said it “would be a disaster” to reelect former President Donald Trump.
He hinted at the possibility of endorsing a Democratic challenger to Biden, saying that UAW workers need someone who can “deliver real results.”
“We need to get our members organized behind a pro-worker, pro-climate, and pro-democracy political program that can deliver for the working class,” wrote Fain.
The union doesn’t always deliver for Democrats
The union has traditionally been a bulwark of support for the Democratic party. But how much it actually can deliver has varied widely over the years.
Back in 1980, large numbers of workers shifted support to Ronald Reagan, helping him defeat then-incumbent President Jimmy Carter. Many of its members also sided with Trump in both 2016 and 2020, polling data showed.