Worker concerns about EV manufacturing wages could become unlikely fodder for Republicans

Rachel Frazin

Workers are concerned major automakers are using the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) to undercut wages, complicating the politics of an issue that is emerging as a point of contention in the 2024 election.

The powerful United Auto Workers (UAW) union, which has historically supported Democrats and backed President Biden in 2020, has so far withheld an endorsement from the president in his ongoing reelection bid, saying they want more backing from the White House amid the shift to more climate-friendly vehicles before they can support him.

Republicans are tapping into some of the workers’ frustrations, railing against the transition, including in swing states like Michigan, a major auto manufacturing hub. But the union says it is not inherently against electric vehicles, just the practices that employers are adopting.

In a new video posted online this week, the auto union laments what it describes as benefits of the transition — including government funding — going to employers rather than employees.

“The Big Three automakers: Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, are taking billions of dollars in government subsidies to go electric, but those benefits aren’t trickling down to UAW members,” union president Shawn Fain says in the video.

The auto union particularly cites the 2019 closure of a General Motors (GM) plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where the union says workers were on track to make upwards of $30 per hour. It notes that after the closure, a new battery plant from Ultium Cells, a joint venture between GM and LG, opened up in the area in 2022. But the union said workers there only make $16.50 per hour.

“Ultium cut auto wages in half,” Fain said.

A GM spokesperson said its assembly plants have the same pay structure as its plants for traditional vehicles, specifically citing two plants in Michigan and one in Tennessee, and said the company is bringing employees along for the EV transition.

It referred other questions to Ultium, which said in a written statement that it is “building a culture of working collaboratively and respectfully … to build on our success and resolve issues that come up.”

Ultium also said that it is “committed to the collective bargaining process, and will work in good faith with the UAW to reach a competitive agreement that positions our employees and our Ohio battery cell manufacturing facility for success.”

Amid the UAW’s concerns, Fain told the union’s members in a May memo that the union was holding off on endorsing Biden.

“The federal government is pouring billions into the electric vehicle transition, with no strings attached and no commitment to workers,” said the memo, which has been obtained by The Hill.

“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 commitment,” Fain added.

An Energy Department spokesperson pointed to comments from Secretary Jennifer Granholm in which she says the administration wants to ensure “these are good paying jobs” where people can “earn a living wage, so they can raise their family on it.”

A White House spokesperson has said previously that the UAW “is working toward the same goal as the President, which is to ensure the future of the auto industry is made here in America, with good-paying, union jobs.”

Meanwhile, Republicans have sought to appeal to some of the disenfranchised labor vote.

During a speech in Michigan late last month, former President Trump criticized the transition to electric vehicles and Biden’s policies in support of it.

“It’s going to decimate your jobs and it’s going to decimate more than anybody else the state of Michigan,” Trump said in the swing state.

And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) recently vetoed a bipartisan state bill that would have made it easier for Florida’s agencies to purchase electric vehicles.

But while the UAW is not currently backing Biden, it is also unlikely to support a Republican candidate, saying in the same memo in which it withheld the Biden endorsement that “another Donald Trump presidency would be a disaster.”

Unions have historically backed Democrats, and others are continuing to support the president as he seeks another term in the White House. The AFL-CIO, a major organization of unions, is backing Biden in his reelection bid, and has called him “the most pro-union president in our lifetimes.”

But, even if the auto union does back Biden, many of its members could still vote against him. A UAW source told The Hill that the group’s internal polling found that about a third of its members who voted in the 2020 election voted for Trump, despite the union endorsing Biden.

And the anti-electric vehicle message could resonate with some disaffected workers in the coming election cycle.

Republican strategist Keith Naughton said such a message is likely to work “in most of the states where Republicans are going to try to pick up” votes, given that many people in those states do not drive electric cars.

Naughton, who is an opinion contributor to The Hill, also said that the Republican messaging comes after a shift within the GOP that somewhat distanced the party from big business.

“They’ve got increasing shares of the union vote over the last 10 years. I think they’re getting more comfortable with appealing to that segment of the electorate,” he said.

Courtesy: thehill