Biden stuck between 2 priorities as UAW confronts EVs


Autoworkers are threatening to strike unless they get major concessions to ensure they aren’t left behind in the transition to electric vehicles, leaving Democrats stuck between competing priorities that the Biden administration admits won’t be easy to solve.

The dispute comes just as President Joe Biden is seeking reelection with an emphasis on his handling of the economy, a message that would be muddied by a strike representing 150,000 workers. And the unrest complicates another Biden priority: shifting the country away from gas guzzlers in favor of electric vehicles.

Democrats are counting on the United Auto Workers to join other unions in providing crucial organizational muscle and get-out-the-vote efforts in 2024. A backlash against Biden’s EV push could discourage that involvement — a threat underlined by the UAW’s refusal so far to endorse Biden’s reelection, despite the larger AFL-CIO throwing its weight behind Biden in its earliest-ever endorsement of a presidential candidate.

Biden is concerned enough about the UAW unrest to appoint a liaison — veteran Democratic adviser Gene Sperling — to the unions and the automakers.

A central issue in the auto contract talks is the status of workers in plants that are producing batteries, many of which are jointly owned with battery companies. But resolving that won’t be an easy task, considering it would mean wrangling battery makers to the bargaining table along with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis.

A senior administration official, granted anonymity to speak frankly about the White House’s perspective, said in an interview that there’s no magic solution in the administration’s back pocket on the joint venture facility question.

The issue throws a new, complicated dynamic into contract talks that are usually centered on traditional economic asks, such as higher wages, the senior administration official said.

“We agree completely that battery factory workers deserve every right to organize and negotiate for jobs that provide the pay and protections needed for economic security and economic dignity,” the official said.

Aggressive new leadership atop the UAW has insisted that those battery plant workers must be brought up to the same wage and safety standards as union workers at traditional plants.

Officials in Washington “need to tie these federal incentives in the EV industry to wage and safety standards that generations of auto workers have fought for,” UAW President Shawn Fain said in a video address last week. “They’re going to have to choose because we’re going to ask them, ‘Which side are you on?’”

Some union-watchers say the likelihood of a strike is still low, but that’s not a foregone conclusion. As it plays out, the union could cause headaches for an administration that’s worked hard to bill itself as the most pro-labor in history.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said she’s been warning whoever will listen that a strike, which could happen as soon as Sept. 14, is a serious possibility.

“We’ve got to figure out these joint ventures,” Dingell said. “People are being paid more at McDonald’s in Ohio than they are at the battery plant there.”

Labor seizes the moment

More than 200,000 workers at large companies participated in work stoppages last month, easily topping the 126,500 that were involved in strikes in the entirety of 2022, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Auto workers have a lot of bargaining power right now, said Harry Katz, a professor on collective bargaining at Cornell University. They’re armed with low unemployment, high worker skill levels and a sense of solidarity, he said.

The 2024 election gives them even more leverage.

“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.”

The UAW wants Biden to remind auto executives how much they’ve benefited from the government in the past, and “how much they will need the continuing support of the government as the car companies try to survive the switch to EVs,” Gordon said. “So that’ll be behind closed doors.”

Hanging over the negotiations is the lack of presidential endorsement from the UAW. Fain’s explicit citing of concerns over the EV transition makes clear that Biden’s signature priority — the transition to a clean energy economy — could put him at odds with a key ally.

There’s no expectation that Biden would publicly discuss specific demands, and the president won’t be knocking heads at the bargaining table, the senior administration official said.

Still, the union wants the administration to hear its concerns about the implementation of electric vehicle policy, and would like to see the president’s support of their perspective, the official said.

A spokesperson for Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who has been closely following the negotiations, said the elimination of the two-tiered wage system for package handlers at UPS in its recent contract deal with the Teamsters could be a good sign for UAW.

“The battery plants have to be part of the national agreement, and there can’t be a two-tier [system] where some workers are paid less,” the Kildee spokesperson said.

A recent letter led by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to automakers urged them to come to an agreement that includes all joint-venture EV battery facilities in the national contracts. Fain quoted from the letter in his video address last week, but the UAW hasn’t explicitly made a demand to fold those facilities into the master agreements.

Winning that concession would be difficult, said Katz and Marick Masters, a professor of business at Wayne State University. However, the auto companies could agree to some kind of compromise on the issue, they said.

The UAW’s “full court press” to win higher wages and safety standards is likely an effort to boost unionization efforts at the joint ventures, Masters said.

He said the union is responding to “a lot of pent-up frustrations and fears” from rank-and-file members about their jobs amid the EV transition. That includes frustration at Biden, he said.

“What they’re saying is that they expect more than the typical bargain they’ve gotten from Democrats,” Masters said. “And they’re raising the stakes as much as they possibly can.”

Credit: Politico

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *