UAW president urges caution on rush to electric vehicles amid industry push

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — As the Biden administration and leading automakers announce bold changes to move ahead with electric vehicles, the president of the United Auto Workers said the union plans to "take a more cautious approach" and is urging "everyone to take a little step back."

"We know this technology is coming, we know we have to embrace it and make the best of it," UAW President Rory Gamble said on a Wednesday afternoon call hosted by the Automotive Press Association. But he said some technological changes in the auto industry just don't stick with consumers. 

"When that happens, our members suffer. When that embrace of technology fails and these companies invest a lot of money with no return, our members are the ones who have to deal with the fallout."

UAW International President Rory Gamble speaks during a press conference with United States Attorney Matthew Schneider, announcing a civil settlement with the United Auto Workers in Detroit, Michigan  on December 14, 2020.

Gamble said the union is evaluating whether there will be enough charging infrastructure and other federal policies to prompt widespread consumer adoption of EVs. Last year, 1.9% of new vehicles sold in the United States were electric. 

The Detroit News is running a great deal right now for our new subscribers. Sign up here for just $1 for 6 months.

Most importantly, he said, "will there be government support to make sure that these jobs are good paying, American jobs with wages and benefits and that members are free to collectively bargain to protect their standards of living?"

Leading U.S. automakers are increasingly moving toward electrification. In the last two weeks alone, General Motors Co. has announced it aims to eliminate tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035, Ford Motor Co. has announced an additional $22 billion investment in electric vehicles, and Toyota Motor Co. said it will put two new EVs on the market in 2022.

Past research by the UAW found that the switch to EVs could cost around 35,000 jobs because electric vehicles take fewer parts and fewer employees to assemble than vehicles with internal combustion engines. Gamble said GM's goal is not too aggressive, but that it "should bear out more discussion."

Automakers appear to be aligned with President Joe Biden, who has pledged significant federal investment in electrifying the federal fleet, in research and development of EVs, in charging infrastructure and in consumer incentives. 

Biden has also directed his administration to reevaluate Trump-era rollbacks of emissions standards and is reportedly preparing to discuss coming changes with automakers. 

Both General Motors and UAW leaders have spoken with Biden or other White House officials since he took office Jan. 20. White House domestic climate advisor Gina McCarthy said the administration is speaking with other automakers and utilities to advance the administration's goal to reach net-zero emissions in the energy sector by 2035 and the whole economy by 2050. 

Gamble said discussions with the Biden administration have been "phenomenal," compared to the Trump administration, where there was "very little dialogue" on how to protect jobs in the face of coming technological changes. "It was pretty dismal."

The UAW leader also said the union has proposed three candidates to monitor its operations under a consent decree reached late last year with the federal government amid a years-long crackdown on corruption among the union's former leaders, though he said he could not reveal their names.

"We welcome the monitor," he said. "Our culture is of such now that that monitor will have a very boring job. It's just a part of what we need to get done."

Under the consent decree, the union must be under a federal monitor for six years. Members of the union will also be allowed to vote on whether they would like to change their constitution to allow them to directly elect leaders. For the last seven decades, UAW leaders have been chosen by elected delegates representing locals. 

That referendum will happen once the monitor is in place, Gamble said. He condemned the corruption found among previous leaders, but defended the current delegate election process. 

"There's no corruption, there's no wrongdoing found in how we've elected our leadership," he said. "How you elect someone does not define whether they're going to be corrupt or not."

Twitter: @rbeggin