UAW Strike Exposes Tensions Between Biden’s Goals Of Tackling Climate Change And Supporting Unions

Two of President Joe Biden ‘s top goals — fighting climate change and expanding the middle class by supporting unions — are colliding in the key battleground state of Michigan as the United Auto Workers go on strike against the country’s biggest car companies.

Saturday, September 16th 2023, 1:12 pm

By: Associated Press, Sydney Langley


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Two of President Joe Biden ‘s top goals — fighting climate change and expanding the middle class by supporting unions — are colliding in the key battleground state of Michigan as the United Auto Workers go on strike against the country’s biggest car companies.

The strike involves 13,000 workers so far, less than one-tenth of the union’s total membership, but it’s a sharp test of Biden’s ability to hold together an expansive and discordant political coalition while running for reelection.

Biden is trying to turbocharge the market for electric vehicles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent China from solidifying its grip on a growing industry. His signature legislation, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, includes billions of dollars in incentives to get more clean cars on the roads.

Some in the UAW fear the transition will cost jobs because electric vehicles require fewer people to assemble. Although there will be new opportunities in the production of high-capacity batteries, there’s no guarantee that those factories will be unionized and they’re often being planned in states more hostile to organized labor.

“The president is in a really tough position,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “What he needs to be the most pro-labor president ever and the greenest president ever is a magic wand.”

The union is demanding steep raises and better benefits, and it’s escalating the pressure with its targeted strike. Brittany Eason, who has worked for 11 years at the Ford Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan, said workers are worried that they’ll “be pushed out by computers and electric vehicles.”

“How do you expect people to work with ease if they’re in fear of losing their jobs?” said Eason, who planned to walk the picket line this weekend. Electric vehicles may be inevitable, she said, but changes need to be made “so everybody can feel secure about their jobs, their homes and everything else.”

Biden on Friday acknowledged the tension in remarks from the White House, saying the transition to clean energy “should be fair and a win-win for autoworkers and auto companies.”

He dispatched top aides to Detroit to help push negotiations along, and he prodded management to make more generous offers to the union, saying “they should go further to ensure record corporate profits mean record contracts.”

As part of its demands, the UAW wants to represent employees at battery plants, which would send ripple effects through an industry that has seen supply chains upended by technological changes.

“Batteries are the power trains of the future,” said Dave Green, a regional director for the union in Ohio and Indiana. “Our workers in engine and transmission areas need to be able to move into the new generation.”

Executives, however, are keen to keep a lid on labor costs as their companies prepare to compete in a global market. China is the dominant manufacturer of electric vehicles and batteries.

“The UAW strike and indeed the ‘summer of strikes’ is the natural result of the Biden administration’s ‘whole of government’ approach to promoting unionization at all costs,” said Suzanne Clark, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Some environmental groups, conscious of how labor remains crucial to securing support for climate programs, have expressed support for the strike.

“We’re at a really pivotal moment in the history of the auto industry,” said Sam Gilchrist, deputy national outreach director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Presidential politics have increased the stakes for the strike, which could damage the economy going into an election year, depending on how long it lasts and whether it spreads. It’s also centered in Michigan, a key part of Biden’s 2020 victory and critical to his chances at a second term.

Former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, sees an opportunity to drive a wedge between Biden and workers. He issued a statement saying Biden “will murder the U.S. auto industry and kill countless union autoworker jobs forever, especially in Michigan and the Midwest. There is no such thing as a ‘fair transition’ to the destruction of these workers’ livelihoods and the obliteration of this cherished American industry.”

In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump said that “electric cars are going to be made in China,” not the United States, and he said “the autoworkers are being sold down the river by their leadership.”

Trump’s comments have not earned him any support from Shawn Fain, president of the UAW.

“That’s not someone that represents working-class people,” he told MSNBC earlier this month. “He’s part of the billionaire class. We need to not forget that. And that’s what our members need to think about when they go to vote.”

Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, said Trump “will say literally anything to distract from his long record of breaking promises and failing America’s workers.” He noted that Trump would have let auto companies go bankrupt during the financial crisis rather than bail them out as President Barack Obama did at the time.

But there are also disagreements between Biden and workers.

When the Energy Department announced a $9.2 billion loan for battery plants in Tennessee and Kentucky, part of a joint venture by Ford and a South Korean company, Fain said the federal government was “actively funding the race to the bottom with billions in public money.”

Madeline Janis, co-executive director of Jobs to Move America, which works on environmental and worker issues, said the White House needs to do more to alleviate labor challenges.

“We don’t have enough career pathways for people to see themselves in this future and let go of the jobs in industries that are causing our world to be in crisis,” she said.

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United Auto Workers Strike: How Will This Impact Consumers?

The United Auto Workers are striking against three of the largest automakers; Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, according to CBS News. These strikes are primarily happening in Detroit, but are affecting supply chains elsewhere. The UAW is also talking about encouraging strikes at other plants, if their demands are not met soon enough.

"The price of vehicles went up 30%. In the last four years, CEO pay went up 40%. In the last four years, worker pay went up 6%. We're not the problem," UAW President Shawn Fain said on Good Morning America.

UAW’s Demands

  1. Pay increases and cost of living adjustments: The UAW is asking for a 36 percent pay increase across a four-year contract, according to CBS News. The UAW also wants to reinstate annual cost of living adjustments.
  2. End of wage tiers: The UAW wants to end the two-tiered wage structure. Under that structure, the top tier workers (anyone hired before 2007) are paid around $33 per hour. Lower tier workers (anyone hired after 2007) earn around $17 per hour, according to CBS News. Lower tier workers also miss out on pensions and have worse health benefits, CBS News says.
  3. Defined pension plans: UAW workers who were hired after 2007 do not receive defined benefit pensions, according to CBS News. The UAW wants all workers to receive defined benefit pensions.
  4. Four-day work week: The UAW is also asking for four-day work weeks and more time off, according to CBS News. The four-day work week would entail working 32 hours for 40 hours of pay.
  5. Right to strike: The UAW wants the right to strike over plant closings, CBS News says. Ford, General Motors and Stellantis have closed 65 plants in the last 20 years, according to the UAW. The UAW is also asking that they be allowed to represent workers at electric vehicle battery factories.
  6. Retiree health care: The UAW also wants a return of retiree health care, which is available for employees who were hired before 2007, but not for those hired since.
  7. Limit use of temporary workers: The UAW is hoping to end the “abuse” of temporary workers, who are hired under the lower tier pay and benefits.

Assembly Plant Idles

Strikes at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis could cause other assembly plants to idle, basically meaning temporarily shutdown. Normally when a plant is idle, workers are still paid. However, since this would be caused by the strike, Ford and General Motors are saying they will not pay, according to the Associated Press

Effects on suppliers and the supply chain

Strikes in the Auto Workers industry will have a ripple effect, if not ended soon. The trucking industry and smaller suppliers could feel the strikes hardest, according to Freight Waves. There have already been an uptick in rescheduled trucking shipments from Mexico to the US, according to Freight Waves. 

According to the US Chamber of Commerce, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis have 5,600 suppliers and more than 690,000 supplier jobs tied to them.

The decrease in parts moving out of plants will have an effect on dealerships across the world, according to Freight Waves. UAW plants make parts for American and foreign cars. As the supply of auto parts begins to dwindle, repairing cars could become more costly, or impossible. It would take weeks for consumers to feel the effects of the strike, according to Freight Waves.

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