Payne: UAW-GM fight exposes fears of an EV future

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The General Motors Co. strike has united the United Auto Workers and their Democratic political allies over demands for more pay and job security. But the walkout also has opened a rift between the union and Democrats focused on a Green New Deal's electric vehicle future.

Long supporters of government mpg mandates to force a transition to EVs, the UAW has gotten cold feet as studies — including one from its own research department — show battery-powered vehicle production takes less labor to manufacture.

“The shift to EVs ... involves a fundamental change in the key components that power the vehicle,” says a UAW research paper, “Taking the High Road: Strategies for a Fair EV Future,” published this spring. “Such a change will have disruptive implications for the auto industry (including) changes in where and under what condition vehicles and key components are made, employment declines in powertrain manufacturing, and the entrance of new corporate actors without a U.S. manufacturing base.”

GM plans to announce an investment at its Orion Assembly Plant, where it builds the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Chevrolet Sonic.

With only a battery and electric motor driving the wheels, EVs require fewer workers to assemble than internal combustion engines with dozens of components like transmissions, valves and connecting rods. And EVs are expected to last longer because they have fewer moving parts to wear out.

Furthermore, the union worries that new players in the EV space will not be union shops like the decades-old supply chains that feed the Detroit Three automakers. EV innovator Tesla Inc., for example, makes electric motors and batteries, yet is non-union.

“The studies have the UAW leadership nervous,” says consultant and ex-GM general director for labor Art Schwartz. “They are figuring out that fewer people will be employed making EVs.”

That nervousness is recent. For the last decade, the UAW has supported the Environmental Protection Agency's aggressive push to force battery-powered vehicles, beginning with the Obama administration’s doubling of fuel economy standards in 2009.

Recognizing that the Detroit Three were “on federal life support,” then-EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality chief Margot Oge recounts in her book, “Driving the Future: Combating Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars,” how the EPA used its “power dynamics” to push for significant mileage standards under the federal government’s new-found authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

For Oge and the EPA, the standards were accelerated because the gas-powered car “needs to be largely replaced” by zero-emission vehicles. Oge claimed the push toward EVs would create a job boom, estimating “that by 2020, the greenhouse-gas standards will help add 150,000 manufacturing jobs” — that is, as many UAW workers as are employed by the Detroit Three today.

The UAW consistently voiced its support. When the Obama administration controversially tried to lock in the mpg standards under a mid-term review ahead of the Trump administration’s taking office, the UAW sent a letter to EPA supporting the move.

“UAW members know firsthand that ... greenhouse gas (GHG) standards have spurred investments in new products that employ tens of thousands of our members,” the paper said. The UAW has also worked with billionaire Democratic candidate Tom Steyer who advocates the elimination of all fossil fuels.

A battery-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV makes its way down the assembly line at General Motors' Lake Orion Assembly assembly plant.

As recently as last May, then-UAW President Dennis Williams held a news conference supporting the Obama-era emissions standards: “We had an agreement during the Obama administration. All the companies agreed to it. We agreed to it. The enviros agreed to it. I don’t think we should be rolling back those standards.”

The UAW’s report sounding the EV alarm this spring, however, cited a Ford Motor Co. investor presentation predicting a “30-percent reduction in labor hours per unit compared to (gas engine) production.”

UAW advocacy for drivetrain regulation has taken a turn. The just-negotiated UAW-GM proposal pledges creation of a National Committee on Advanced Technology to address coming change and devotes a section to assuring its members it will fight any job cutbacks related to a new generation of transportation:

“Your bargaining committee raised many concerns regarding the company’s plans to increase its electric and autonomous vehicle lineup. They outlined how advanced manufacturing had already impacted the membership. As a result, the union won a commitment from the company to not only reaffirm that the introduction of new technology will not move work out of the bargaining unit, but also ensure UAW members will be able to retain the higher-skilled work associated with new technology.”

Schwartz, the former GM labor director, says the union’s about face on government-mandated EVs is likely due to the organization’s reactive nature: “They probably looked at it from an environmental, not a labor perspective. They wanted to be a progressive organization that looks out for the environment.”

As the UAW puts the brakes on electrics, however, its Democratic allies are shifting into high gear. The Green New Deal would eliminate the internal combustion engine, with Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders — who joined the picket line at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly in September — vowing a national trade-in program for EVs as well as a mandate for electric buses.

Front-runner Joe Biden told a CNN climate change townhall that EVs are “going to create so many new jobs for us. We have to ... take combustion engine vehicles off the road as rapidly as we can.”

The UAW and the candidates agree that a comprehensive, government-led industrial policy is needed to manage the government’s forcing of electrics — including job training, protectionist trade policy, consumer incentives, and infrastructure investment.

For automakers, the train — or EV — has already left the station. Ford is investing $11 billion to make 40 EVs next decade, while Volkswagen AG says it will phase out gas-powered cars by 2026.

An industry insider familiar with the situation says that regulation alone is behind the industry's move to electrification. Without consumer demand, the UAW is nervous an electric future is more tenuous than the gas-powered present.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.