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An Auto Workers Strike Would Threaten Biden’s Green Coalition

6 minute read

The most consequential political force in passing the landmark Inflation Reduction Act last summer was President Joe Biden’s big green base, a coalition of unions, businesses, and environmentalists that he managed to lash together with the clear, simple promise of good jobs in a new, decarbonized economy. Now, on the precipice of what may become the biggest auto strike in years, that green troika is threatening to split apart, imperiling the future of the President’s climate agenda, and his reelection chances.

U.S. labor has been out in force over the past two years, and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union is no exception. If a deal isn’t reached by Thursday night workers may begin striking at some factories. Part of their demands include a big pay bump, but they also want protections from what they see as a looming threat: that the green transition will be used as an excuse to rob them of hard-earned rights. 

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They have a point. Wages have been declining for years, and they’ve slumped precipitously after an especially brutal two years of inflation. The race to transition to EVs might worsen their situation further. The Big Three automakers—Ford, GM, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler)—are building a lot of their new EV plants in southern states that have passed laws hostile to organized labor in order to save on wage costs. They’re also investing in U.S. battery plants operated as joint ventures with South Korean cell manufacturers, most of which are not unionized. Before one GM-operated facility in Warren, Ohio, voted to unionize in December, wages ran a mere $16 an hour. After months of bargaining workers at the plant are now set to earn around $20/hour.

EVs are also generally simpler to produce than gasoline-powered cars, and some worker jobs could be eliminated entirely. That may be why, among other things, the UAW is asking for a 4-day workweek—to help preserve more jobs when there’s less work to do. 

And then there’s the fact of the billions of dollars that the public has forked over to these companies to help spur them into producing EVs en masse. As the union leaders are effectively arguing, by taking that money, automakers are implicitly agreeing that the EV transition will benefit all of society, workers included, rather than merely executives and shareholders.

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That’s all well and good, say the carmakers, but they still have to actually sell these cars. To survive as businesses, the Big Three are going to have to go up against cheap foreign labor and rising competition on the global market from China, which means they have to keep their own labor costs down. That argument would be a bit stronger if the auto executives weren’t taking quite so much for themselves out of the company coffers (GM CEO Mary Barra, for instance, made about $29 million last year, equal to approximately 450 lineworkers’ combined annual salaries).

Biden, with his perilous green coalition, stands in the middle of all this: in the lead up to a second term run, the outcome of the auto industry power struggle could swing his chances of reelection, either allowing him to solidify his climate gains, or give a conservative opponent an opportunity to tear them down. The automakers, and the investor class they to some extent represent, have political power, especially as they ponder how much they’re willing to contribute to Democratic campaigns this cycle. If Biden uses the power of his office to twist their arm too hard in giving concessions to workers, they may decide they are better off doing business with conservatives.

But the workers are also powerful, both in their capacity to help get out the vote for Biden in their crucial swing states, and in the fact that a long strike and the regional economic slump it could precipitate could erase any hope of the Democrats carrying important states. UAW president Shawn Fain is well aware of his power in that regard—so far, the influential union has withheld endorsing Biden for a second term. They want to see how far the President will go to help them first. “I think our strike can reaffirm to him where the working-class people in this country stand,” Fain said on CNBC last week. “It’s time for politicians in this country to pick a side.”

Biden’s people are engaging in the back rooms, and they’re saying a strike can be averted. In public, the President has sounded a note in favor of workers. “The UAW helped create the American middle class,” he said in an August statement. “And as we move forward in this transition to new technologies, the UAW deserves a contract that sustains the middle class.” 

Yet that hasn’t stopped opponents from attempting to siphon away the President’s union support should the deal fail to deliver on worker’s hopes. “Joe Biden’s Electric Vehicle mandate will murder the U.S. auto industry and kill countless union autoworker jobs forever, especially in Michigan and the Midwest,” wrote GOP front-runner former President Donald Trump’s campaign in a statement last week. “There is no such thing as a ‘fair transition’ to the destruction of these workers’ livelihoods and the obliteration of this cherished American industry.”

It’s not exactly a fair statement—in a world undergoing a massive and urgently-necessary transition to clean energy, giving automakers a leg up in a changeover to EVs is probably the best thing the government can do to preserve an American auto industry into the future. As for the point about the coming loss of union jobs and fair wages, the outcome of the current negotiations will go a long way towards determining that fact. Biden has always had a rapport with unionized blue collar folks, and that support was one of the most important factors in launching him to the presidency. Now, as those same voters and organizers try to extract gains from his policies to which they feel they are entitled, he would do well to make sure that they haven’t misplaced their trust.

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com