Two of President Joe Biden’s main goals —fight climate change and expand the middle class by supporting unions— came into collision in the crucial electoral state of Michigan, after the union United Auto Workers went on strike against the country’s major automobile companies.
The walkout involves 13,000 workers so far, less than a tenth of the union’s total membership, but is a tough test of Biden’s ability to hold together an expansive and discordant political coalition during his re-election campaign.
The president is trying to give a quick boost to the electric vehicle market to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent China consolidate your control over a growing industry. His signature legislation, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, includes billions of dollars in incentives to put more pollution-free cars on the road.
Some in the UAW They fear the transition will lead to job losses as electric vehicles require fewer people to assemble them.. Although there will be new opportunities in the production of high-capacity batteries, there is no guarantee that those factories will be unionized, and their construction is often being planned in states more hostile to unions.
“The president is in a really difficult position”said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. ““What you need to be the most pro-worker president in history and the greenest president of all time is a magic wand.”.
The union is demanding steep raises and better benefits, and is ramping up the pressure with its selective strike. Brittany Easonwho has worked for 11 years at Ford’s assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, said that workers worry that “computers and electric vehicles will drive them out”.
“How do you expect people to work calmly if they fear losing their jobs?” said Eason, who planned to participate in the strikers’ protests this weekend. The advent of electric vehicles may be inevitable, he added, but changes need to be made “so everyone can feel safe in their jobs, their homes and everything else.”
Biden acknowledged the tension in remarks from the White House on Friday, saying that the transition to clean energy “It should be fair and a win-win for the workers who assemble the cars and the auto companies”.
The president sent top aides to Detroit to help in negotiations, and urged management to make more generous offers to the union, saying they “should go further to ensure that record corporate profits mean record contracts.”
As part of its demands, the UAW wants to represent employees at battery factories, which would have a ripple effect in an industry that has seen its supply chains upended by technological changes.
“Batteries are the powertrain of the future”said Dave Green, the union’s regional director in Ohio and Indiana. “Our engine and transmission workers need to be able to transition to the next generation.”
However, executives are interested in keeping labor costs in check as their companies prepare to compete in a global market. China is the predominant 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.”he explained Suzanne ClarkCEO of the United States Chamber of Commerce.
Some environmental groups, aware that workers are crucial to ensuring 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 director of national outreach for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Presidential policies have raised the stakes of the strike, which could damage the economy heading into an election year, depending on how long it lasts and whether it extends. Additionally, it focuses on Michigan, a key site of Biden’s 2020 victory and crucial to his chances of winning a second term.
Former President Donald Trump, the favorite for the Republican nomination, sees an opportunity to drive a wedge between Biden and workers. He issued a statement in which he says Biden “will murder the American auto industry and end countless unionized auto worker jobs forever, especially in Michigan and the North Central region of the United States. “There is no ‘just transition’ in the face of the destruction of these workers’ livelihoods and the decimation of this precious American industry.”
In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump declared that “Electric cars are going to be manufactured in China,” not in the United States, and added that “auto workers are being betrayed by their leaders.”.
Trump’s comments have not earned him any endorsement from Shawn Fain, president of the UAW.
“That’s not someone who represents the working class,” he told MSNBC this month. “He is part of the billionaire class. We must not forget that. And that’s what our members need to think about when they go to vote.”
Biden campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa said Trump “will say literally anything to distract from his long record of breaking promises and failing American workers.” He noted that Trump would have let auto companies go bankrupt during the financial crisis instead of bailing 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 to establish battery plants in Tennessee and Kentucky — part of a joint initiative by Ford and a South Korean company — Fain said the federal government was “actively funding a race to the bottom with billions of public money.”
Madeline Janis, co-executive director of Jobs to Move America, a strategic policy organization on environmental and labor issues, said the White House needs to do more to alleviate labor challenges.
“We don’t have enough career paths for people to see themselves in this future and leave their jobs in industries that are causing our planet to be in crisis,” he added.