‘Not a fan’: UAW workers give thumbs-down to Biden’s EV plan

By David Ferris, Hannah Northey, Mike Lee | 09/27/2023 07:01 AM EDT

E&E News interviewed striking autoworkers in three states to gauge what their views may mean for the electric vehicle industry and the 2024 presidential race.

Members of the United Auto Workers union carry signs in Michigan and Texas as a strike against major U.S. automakers continues.

Members of the United Auto Workers union carry signs in Michigan and Texas as a strike against major U.S. automakers continues. Hannah Northey and Mike Lee/POLITICO's E&E News; Paul Sancya/AP Images (center photo)

BELLEVILLE, Mich. — Autoworkers aren’t just turned off by electric vehicles because they might kill their jobs. They also don’t want to purchase them, and aren’t buying into either party’s approach to electrification — a view that signals political risks for both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner.

In interviews across the country Monday, many striking members of the United Auto Workers said they would likely shun EVs because of charging worries and the vehicles’ high prices. While some said they were inclined to credit Biden for walking the picket line Tuesday, others said union members are deeply divided on presidential candidates.

“We’ve got a lot of people that are frustrated, just with all of them,” said Aaron Westaway, a unit bargaining representative, referring to the broader political landscape.  He is part of UAW Local 900, which covers the Ford Motor Co.’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, on the outskirts of Detroit.


Westaway said he supported Biden’s visit to Michigan to draw attention to the union’s ongoing strike, but noted that there’s an overall frustration with politicians among union workers.

“Nobody’s happy with Trump, nobody’s happy with Biden,” he added.

To gauge autoworkers’ opinions on EVs, E&E News visited the picket lines at Big Three auto plants in three states and interviewed almost two dozen workers. Along with Ford’s assembly in Michigan, there were visits to two parts warehouses — one belonging to General Motors Co. in Roanoke, Texas, northwest of Dallas, and another of Stellantis NV in Beaverton, Ore., outside Portland.

The workers’ attitudes are consequential not just for the future of EVs and of the 146,000 employees at the country’s three biggest legacy automakers represented by the UAW, but could affect who controls the White House, considering the influence of unions in battleground states like Michigan.

Biden considers his moves to support EVs — chiefly the billions of dollars of subsidies to build charging stations and manufacture EVs and their batteries in 2021’s bipartisan infrastructure law and last year’s Inflation Reduction Act — as a key administration achievement that increases American competitiveness versus China and combats climate change.

Trump — who is scheduled to visit Michigan on Wednesday — is seeking the support of autoworkers in that swing state on the argument that EVs will kill jobs. He is slated to deliver a speech that is counterprogramming to a Republican primary presidential debate, being held at the same time in California.

Biden on Tuesday visited a GM picket line in Belleville, Mich., to express solidarity with the UAW, a union that historically has been aligned with Democrats but so far has withheld its endorsement in the presidential race.

Speaking through a bullhorn at the GM redistribution center, the president credited the UAW with saving the auto sector in the past and making sacrifices. “Now they’re doing incredibly well,” said Biden. “And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well, too.”

UAW President Shawn Fain, asked at the event about the union’s stance on EVs, said, “it’s got to be a just transition, where it has our labor standards in there, not paying poverty wages and not a race to the bottom, and it’s currently driving a race to the bottom.”

Biden was asked whether he supported a 40 percent raise for UAW workers, a number that automakers have called a nonstarter. Biden said simply “yes.”

Union workers are seeking a broad portfolio of improvements to their contract, including better wages, cost-of-living increases and an end to wage tiers that disadvantage more recently hired employees. They were encouraged, but not necessarily won over, by Biden’s visit. Meanwhile, they held views of EVs that were sometimes hostile.

“I’m good with the regular 87 unleaded,” said DeJhon Moore, 37, a production operator at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne. “I don’t trust [EVs] to drive long distances, I’d rather just do the regular, go get some fuel and go about my day.”

Aaron Franklin, an autoworker at the Wayne plant for the past three years, struck an open tone. Franklin said the shift to electrification is moving forward quickly and it’s not clear what will happen to the Wayne facility. He said he doesn’t yet drive an EV but supports technology that can reduce emissions, especially if it provides opportunity for Ford workers.

Edgar Litton, 60, said he’s nearing retirement after working 35 years at the Wayne facility and decided to strike to fight for better pay and stronger pensions. When asked about Ford’s shift to EVs, Litton expressed a concern about the lack of charging infrastructure and questioned whether there would be steady supplies of power, noting that Michigan has suffered repeated outages during recent storms.

The White House, the Trump campaign, GM, Stellantis and Ford did not reply to requests for comment.

In an interview with the Washington Examiner earlier this month, GM CEO Mary Barra said that the automaker was “leveraging all of our facilities” in the move to EVs and “wanted to make sure we took our entire manufacturing team along with us.”

Some workers, though, are making dire predictions. “I think EVs are going to wipe us out,” said Whitney Walch, 28, a team leader at Stellantis’ Portland Parts Distribution Center in Beaverton, speaking of the plant’s workers.

Her concern points to a confluence between the transition to EVs and the way that the UAW has carried out its strike.

Last Friday, the union expanded its work stoppage — first targeting just one assembly plant per automaker — to include dozens of parts distribution warehouses of GM and Stellantis. Ford was spared this expansion because, according to Fain, it was negotiating in good faith while talks with the other automakers showed little progress.

Parts distribution plants are warehouses that take in parts from automakers and their suppliers and resort them for delivery to the auto dealers, where they are key ingredients of service departments.

Walch could point to specific parts her team handles that will one day be affected by the EV transition.

“They don’t need spark plugs, what else, oil filters, we sell a lot of those,” she said. “If we don’t have all those parts, I feel like we don’t have a lot to do.”

On Monday, about a dozen of the warehouse’s 40 workers were on the picket line in the rain. A slow line of trucks and cars, some of them Teslas, were squeezed between the strikers on one side and road construction on the other. The occasional vehicle honked in support. The warehouse flagpole’s three flags — American, Stellantis white and UAW blue — were soggy and struggled to flap.

The negative vibe toward EVs extended toward the possibility of owning one.

“I’m not a fan, I don’t like them. I don’t want one,” said Keith Sandberg, 43, a picker-packer who came to work at the warehouse last year after getting laid off of the assembly line at the company’s factory in Belvidere, Ill.

“With the infrastructure, we’re not set up for EVs. We have nothing concrete, really, in place for EV drivers.”

Supporters of EVs have said that while the technology is facing the adolescent challenges of scaling up, it is necessary to reduce carbon emissions and to catch up to China in the EV race. z

“The question for the U.S. is whether we want to build the cars of the future or whether we want to buy them from China,” said Nick Nigro, the founder of Atlas Public Policy, an EV consultancy based in Washington.

‘Dissonance for the American people’

At GM’s distribution warehouse in Roanoke, where eight UAW members walked a picket line along a street in an industrial park, there were concerns about financial uncertainty created by EVs.

“My question is, our security as far as jobs,” said Cornelius Lincoln, 49
, the facility’s UAW president. Asked about job losses, he said, “It’s almost inevitable.”

The attitudes toward EVs are the opposite of what Biden hoped to achieve when he embarked as a candidate on an aggressive pro-EV campaign.

In the year after Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S. has seen more than $92 billion in EV investment in EVs, according to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund. However, most of that money is going to battery and battery-component plants that lie outside the UAW stronghold states of the Upper Midwest.

In that sense, it could be a challenge for Biden to make the case to union autoworkers that the EV transition is benefitting the American autoworker.

“There is going to be a dissonance for the American people, ” said Mike Williams, who follows EV policy as a senior fellow for the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress Action in Washington.

“As [Biden] talks more about this, people will see this as a complex, complicated story,” he said.

Because the Big Three automakers’ involvement in building batteries doesn’t fall under the umbrella of the UAW, the plants that make them aren’t part of the master agreements with the union. The agreements are structured as joint ventures with Korean battery makers. So far, few factories proposed across the country have been completed and staffed, much less unionized.

The autoworkers interviewed were well aware that the billions of dollars in battery investments fall out of their orbit.

“A lot of the EV decisions have already been made, they have designated places for plants like Tennessee, and we don’t even know if it’s going to be union,” said Westaway, the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant UAW representative.

Ford is building a massive battery plant in Haywood County, Tenn., as a joint venture with Korean battery maker SK Innovation Co. Ltd.

Alongside the automaker-UAW negotiations, the state of these battery factories — and whether they are eventually unionized — weigh on workers, said Jessie HF Hammerling, who studies the relationship between green jobs and labor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The core issue is how employers are deploying these new technologies in a way that explicitly weakens the union,” she said in an email. “All of the jobs in the supply chain, from lithium extraction and battery manufacturing all the way up to automotive assembly, could be union jobs.”

Workers said that while the impact of EVs on their jobs is uncertain, the negotiations now underway are intended to establish how they are treated in the day when EVs become standard.

“It will be an impact in the future,” said Sandberg, the picker-packer in Oregon. “The last thing we want to see is our labor union grow smaller. We’d actually like to see it grow bigger.”

Northey reported from Michigan, Lee from Roanoke, Texas, and Ferris from Beaverton, Ore.

This story also appears in Climatewire.