UAW official warns 'we can't assume' electric vehicles will bring good jobs

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

The auto industry is barreling toward electrification. That can be an exciting opportunity or a threat to working people, United Auto Workers Vice President Cindy Estrada said  Tuesday.

"We can't assume these are going to be good jobs," Estrada warned during a panel hosted by the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "Because we can assume that corporate America is going to use these subsidies to do union avoidance."

She argued that federal funds aimed at accelerating EV production must be tied to incentives for those facilities to unionize in order to protect high wages and benefits. 

Cindy Estrada, vice president for the UAW's Stellantis department, is sounding the alarm about what the EV transition could mean for auto workers.

Her comments came a day after Sen. Joe Manchin, the centrist West Virginia Democrat who blocked President Joe Biden's climate and social policy bill late last year, indicated at the World Economic Forum in Davos that he's optimistic he could still reach a deal with leadership on a party-line energy and climate bill that may include manufacturing incentives.

They also come as money continues to pour out to clean transportation projects from the bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year, including an initial $500 million for zero-emission school buses and $615 million for EV chargers. 

But the Davis-Bacon Act, a federal policy that that will require prevailing wage for many construction jobs funded by the infrastructure law, doesn't apply to manufacturing, Estrada said. 

"So it's exciting" that the industry is moving toward electrification, she said, but "our workers, especially in engine plants, they're afraid."

It takes fewer parts and less labor to build an electric vehicle than a gas- or diesel-powered one — a fact that has long spooked UAW leaders who are wary of promises that the transition will create more union jobs than those that may be lost. 

That's especially noticeable in patterns of where new industry investments have been placed. While General Motors announced it would spend $7 billion in Michigan EV-related manufacturing sites, Ford Motor Co. is directing $11.4 billion to sites in Tennessee and Kentucky and Hyundai will put $7 billion into EV projects in Georgia — Southern states where unionization is less common and considered harder to achieve.

Estrada cited Oshkosh Defense, a Wisconsin company that plans to build electric delivery vehicles for the U.S. Postal Service in South Carolina rather than at facilities in its home state that are represented by the UAW. The decision has been criticized by Democrats in Congress.

"It was a way for them to move away from a union workforce," Estrada said. "So we have to be really thoughtful as policies are put into place that those policies have high-road standards."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy also spoke at the Center for American Progress event Tuesday about opportunities ahead in electric vehicle manufacturing. 

Whitmer stressed the importance of workforce training that can help workers transition to build new vehicles: "How do we lure more people into the space and how do we ensure that the workforce that is there can transition as mobility is transitioning as well?"

Twitter: @rbeggin