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Electric Slide

Auto workers for electric cars

Environmental politics hover over the historic United Auto Workers strike, but not in the way you might think. Republicans blame President Biden’s electric vehicle push for the labor strife. Elon Musk blames the union itself. Trumpists blame both, plus China. The media generally has latched onto a single data point: making EVs requires around 40 percent fewer parts, and therefore 40 percent less labor, than gasoline cars. That number is meant to imply that UAW jobs are at risk. Yet at his victory speech in March, newly elected UAW President Shawn Fain didn’t attack Biden, climate policies, or electric vehicles. “Now we’re here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against our one and only true enemy,” he intoned, “the multibillion-dollar corporations and employers who refuse to give our members their fair share.”

The federal government has been forcing automakers to build ever more fuel-efficient and less polluting engines for a little over fifty years. Standards, despite some backsliding, have now become so strict that automakers will have to stop building internal combustion engines altogether as early as 2035. But Detroit automakers, in a familiar refrain, say they cannot, even with increasing revenues and generous subsidies from federal and state governments, afford to make the leap to EVs without concessions from labor. In the past, with the help of corrupt and quiescent union leaders, that strategy might have worked. Not anymore. The UAW has struck.

When the strike began last month, Republicans pounced. Conservative commentator George Will predicted that the UAW “probably cannot even moderate the Biden administration’s climate monomania.” What Will failed to mention, however, is that the UAW supports Biden’s “monomania.” Jim Geraghty, senior political correspondent for the National Review, mocked Biden and the Democrats who “have insisted they could please unions and environmentalists simultaneously. That’s almost impossible.” That may have been true a generation ago, but today’s union members are environmentalists.

Fighting for the planet did not distract the UAW from fighting for its rights. 

On CNBC’s Squawk Box, Mike Pence called the EV push “good for Beijing and bad for Detroit.” Pence, in an apparent riff on Karl Marx’s false consciousness, lamented labor’s unconsciousness: “Any auto worker that’s paying attention would know that’s not in their long-term interest,” he said. No doubt workers don’t need Marx or Pence to explain their interests to them. Two days before the walkout, the Washington Post ran this headline: “Biden faces a moment of peril as UAW threatens broad strike.” And this from The Atlantic on the eve of the strike: “Biden’s Labor-Climate Dilemma: Balancing the interests of unions and environmentalists might not be possible forever.” As the mainstream media sees it, the more than twenty-five thousand workers on strike at five assembly plants and thirty-eight distribution centers nationwide is to be understood primarily as a political conundrum for the self-described “most pro-union president in history.”

When Shane Goldmacher and Coral Davenport reported on the UAW’s non-endorsement of Biden for the Times back in May, they claimed that the delay “underscores how some of President Biden’s moves to fight climate change could weaken some of his political support.” The pair cited Fain’s “talking points” from an internal UAW memo to support their conclusion. In fact, Fain makes his case not against climate regulations and federal subsidies but against giving capital free reign as the paradigm shifts. “The EV transition is at serious risk of becoming a race to the bottom” for workers, the memo reads. “We want to see national leadership have our back on this before we make any commitments.”

Fain played political hardball with the Biden administration and, as evidenced by Biden’s historic visit to the picket lines on September 26, day eleven of the strike, Fain won. No doubt an endorsement will be forthcoming. It’s not surprising that the UAW doesn’t oppose environmental regulations or the shift to EVs. This is in keeping with labor’s longstanding commitment to environmental causes.

“Without the UAW, the first Earth Day would have likely flopped,” recalled Denis Hayes, the event’s coordinator. Then UAW president Walter P. Reuther, who had presided over the union since 1946, spoke at the University of Michigan’s “Environmental Action for Survival” teach-in, a lead-up to Earth Day, in 1970. “The auto workers’ chieftain “acknowledged that it might be a better world with fewer people making automobiles,” noted the New York Times. Reuther’s presence  “utterly changed the dynamics of the coverage —we had instant credibility,” Hayes told The Rumpus in 2009. The UAW turned out workers for events and printed and mailed the organization’s materials, “even those critical of pollution-belching cars.” Reuther then endorsed the Clean Air Act that the Big Four—Ford, Chrysler, American Motors, and General Motors—were working to gut or kill. He believed that the fight to save the planet—alongside the push for racial justice, antipoverty, and urban renewal—all served to benefit his members. “What good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning down?” Reuther asked in 1969, “What good is another week’s vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted and you can’t swim in it and the kids can’t play in it?

In those days, the environment wasn’t the political football it has since become. It was Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who signed the Air Pollution Control Act in 1955; subsequent amendments established federal control over automotive emissions. Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, creating the Environmental Protection Agency. The following year saw 20 million Americans celebrate the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. But fighting for the planet did not distract the UAW from fighting for its rights. Also in 1970, four hundred thousand workers staged a sixty-seven-day strike against General Motors. According to Tim Minchin, a historian at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, “The United Automobile Workers (UAW) mobilized significant levels of national and international support, and won a range of concessions, including substantial wage and benefit increases and the ability for workers to retire after thirty years’ service.”

Even if the UAW retracts its demands tomorrow, the Detroit Three may not survive long enough to become electric car companies on account of some frozen chickens. In 1962, Germany and France imposed tariffs on chickens imported from the United States. President Lyndon Johnson retaliated in 1964 with a 25 percent tariff on imported pickup trucks, which at the time meant Volkswagens.

Protectionist measures have indeed saved auto industry jobs. They just haven’t saved union jobs. President Ronald Reagan famously fired striking air traffic controllers shortly after taking office. But to protect Detroit from foreign competitors, Reagan used the threat of tariffs to secure “voluntary” quotas on Japanese imports in 1981. Honda responded the following year by opening a plant in Marysville, Ohio. Anti-union states south of the Mason-Dixon line then offered incentives to attract more Japanese and European plants. In 1985, General Motors tried the same strategy by establishing Saturn as a separate car company operating under unique labor agreements in Spring Hill, Tennessee. While the transplants ate away at market share, the Chicken Tax continued to protect the full-sized pickup truck market. It has become Detroit’s last redoubt. By far the most popular vehicle type in America, these monster trucks are built by bolting a body to a heavy steel frame. Their shapes also create a massive amount of aerodynamic drag. These characteristics make them poor candidates for electrification.

Collectively, the Big Three—that is, Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, the parent of Chrysler—sell about three million large pickup trucks, and an additional hundreds of thousands of pickup truck-based SUVs annually. These once-utilitarian vehicles are now luxury cars with an average retail price upwards of $60,000, of which around $17,000 is reportedly pure profit. (Sales figures and prices for all vehicles have fluctuated over the pandemic era, and automakers are coy about breaking out per-vehicle profits by model.)

Physics tells us that electrifying these enormous cash cows won’t be easy. The battery pack on GM’s Hummer EV pickup truck adds three thousand pounds to the six-thousand-pound gasoline model. The curb weight of the gasoline Ford F150—the best-selling vehicle in the United States— starts at four thousand pounds; the electric F150 Lightning starts at six thousand pounds. Buyers choose pickup trucks and large SUVs for a lot of reasons, but towing a camper or boat is certainly one of them. Unfortunately, they’re not very good at it. Towing a camper drops the Ford’s highway range from 230 miles to a mere 100; Hummer’s falls from 290 to 140, according to Car & Driver testers. (The Ford has up to 300 miles of range, and the Hummer, 329, in mixed driving, according to the EPA.) Detroit has painted itself into a very tight corner.

The Big Three may be struggling. Tesla is not. Tesla sold 1.3 million of those electric vehicles that are estimated to use forty percent fewer parts than gasoline cars. Tesla nets around $10,000 on each one. Billions of dollars in federal and state subsidies have boosted those profits. Tesla also sold $1.78 billion in carbon credits in 2022, sales made possible by zero-emission vehicle regulations in California, Europe, and China. Despite those high profit margins, Tesla has not rewarded its workers and has fought virulently—and illegally—against unionization. In August 2022, the National Labor Relations Board, as it has again and again, found that Tesla violated labor laws by retaliating against workers who want to unionize—or even try to discuss pay and working conditions.

This is not a conflict between pro-climate and pro-union labor policies and politics. The issue is industrial policy. 

But even if the UAW isn’t able to organize Tesla plants, making gains in the present strike will put upward pressure on non-unionized plants to raise wages. No one should be surprised, therefore, when on day eleven of the strike, Tesla CEO Elon Musk posted on X, the platform previously known as Twitter: “They want a 40% pay raise *and* a 32 hour workweek. Sure way to drive GM, Ford and Chrysler bankrupt in the fast lane.” Musk’s logic is that of a billionaire, and it is shared by capital, its managers, and its media. As Musk well knows, in the long run, EVs will provide higher profit margins than the gasoline cars they replace—especially if governments continue to chip in to pad the bottom line. But it remains to be seen whether the incredibly heavy, aerodynamically inefficient pickup trucks that are Detroit’s bread and butter can be converted to an electric platform.

They will have to be, of course, less on account of Biden than because of China, the European Union, and California, which established pollution control laws (to combat L.A. smog) before Nixon signed the National Environmental Protection Act. Eighteen states follow the rules California sets—states that, along with the Golden State, account for 40 percent of the new car market. Even if Republicans roll back the federal rules, the die is cast.

It is certainly true that replacing internal combustion engines with electric motors will be disruptive and expensive for incumbent automakers. Battery supply chains stretch from the forced labor camps of western China to the child laborers of central Africa. Mass adoption of EVs may turn the nation’s shale oil and gas boomtowns into ghost towns. Auto factories need retooling and battery plants will have to be built close to manufacturing plants.

But this is not a conflict between pro-climate and pro-union labor policies and politics. The issue is industrial policy. The federal government has established a set of national goals for the automobile industry: maintaining a domestically owned automobile manufacturing base while transitioning to EVs. Fain’s consistent point has been that if the government is handing out carrots to promote EVs, workers should get their fair share too. For example, the Department of Energy just loaned Ford $9.2 billion to build a battery plant. “This handout may further enrich Ford shareholders, but it shortchanges communities and the UAW members who produce Ford’s vehicles, powertrains and record-breaking profits,” the UAW said in a statement. Fain drew a direct link to the auto bailout during the financial crisis. “Autoworkers and our families took the hit in 2009 in the name of saving the industry,” he said. “We were never made whole, and it’s an absolute shame to see another Democratic administration doubling down on a taxpayer-funded corporate giveaway.”

There’s no guarantee that the Detroit Three will survive the EV transition. But I guarantee that American workers will continue to produce whatever automobiles the American public, by its votes and its purchases, wants. What matters, therefore, is organizing the unorganized workers at the EV startups, parts suppliers, and foreign transplants. As Walter Reuther made clear in 1970, and as Shawn Fain has reiterated, we don’t have to choose between good jobs and a livable planet. In fact, we can’t have one without the other.