The shift to electric vehicles poses a threat to the work of U.S. unions

In the suburbs of Normal, Illinois, there is a factory that fully demonstrates the challenges faced by the American labor movement as the auto industry moves towards electrification.

A former Mitsubishi plant will launch the electric car startup Rivian next month, where it will start manufacturing pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. The company will hire 1,800 employees next month and plans to expand its scale to 2,500 before the end of this year.

Mitsubishi closed the plant in 2015 and fired a union worker who had 4,000 employees when it peaked at the beginning of this century. Rivian bought the factory from the liquidator for $16 million and will launch its first products from there.

However, even if the factory employs some of the same workers, the factory is no longer a joint store, and the “normal” situation illustrates the dynamics of the American auto industry.

Electric vehicles are recognized as the undisputed future of the industry. Ford and General Motors are competing with electric car manufacturer Tesla and plan to invest billions of dollars in electric car manufacturers. Tesla has become a major electric car manufacturer in the United States.

The U.S. automobile industry is the foundation of American manufacturing, employing nearly 390,000 employees among automakers and another 539,000 employees in the supply chain.

However, electric vehicles increase the likelihood of job loss for assembly workers and the automotive supply chain. Electric vehicles generally require fewer components, which means they require fewer people to make parts and assemble vehicles.

In addition, fewer jobs in electric vehicles may be union jobs, which tend to provide workers with better salaries and benefits. Rivian and Tesla have no unions, nor do many companies in the electric vehicle supply chain.

Rivian takes over the original Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Illinois © Sipa US/Alamy

The Left Economic Policy Institute found in a 2020 report that The income of union workers increased by 11.2% Compared with peers without unions, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the membership of the Auto Workers Federation of America has fallen since it reached the highest point of 1.5 million in 1979, and the real wages of auto workers have fallen by 17% since 1990. . The union still represents 400,000 workers, but a study conducted by the American Federation of Automobile Workers (UAW) in 2018 showed that as many as 35,000 jobs may be lost in the union due to the transition to electric vehicles.

“When you see the fact that you need fewer people, … and the supply chain involves more non-union employers, you may suffer a lot of unemployment.” Marek Masters, professor of business at Wayne State University in Detroit (Marick Masters) said.

Rivian declined to comment on the unionization of the Illinois factory. UAW stated in January 2020 that it “looks forward to the return of these jobs and the opportunity for UAW members to organize again”, but the Mayor of Normal University Chris Koos said that he believes that there has not been any discussion between Rivian and UAW.

“Personally, I am a believer in the union,” Kus said. “They brought a lot of things to the table… But in this case, it was a decision between Rivian and the staff.”

A line chart of inflation-adjusted wages (percentage changes) since 1990, showing that the real wages of auto workers are lagging behind

Rory Gamble, president of UAW, stated that “organizing workers among new electric car manufacturers is necessary,” but this is no easy task.

Workers at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, have been trying to organize through UAW. More than three years ago, Elon Musk’s company fired Richard Ortiz, who distributed pro-union flyers in the factory parking lot. Until this year, the National Labor The Relations Committee ruled that it was illegal to fire him. The board ordered Tesla to re-employ him with remuneration.

The board said that Tesla also prohibited employees from speaking to reporters, retaliated against another union activist, and “forced interrogation” of other supporters, which also violated the law.

It also directly criticized Musk, saying that a tweet he sent in May 2018 constituted an illegal threat to the pay of workers who were considering joining a union. Musk wrote that workers can unionize if they want, “but why pay union dues and give up stock options?”

He was ordered to delete the tweet. As of May 7, it is still online.

Koos said that in conversations with Rivian executives, Tesla seemed to be more open to union employees.

The bigger obstacle may be the shift of the supply chain. Decades ago, the American Federation of Auto Workers used relationships with Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler to unite suppliers. Now, the largest battery manufacturers Panasonic and LG Chem are located in Asia, and American electric vehicle suppliers are unlikely to form alliances.

General Motors and a division of LG Chem have a joint venture and are building factories in Ohio and Tennessee. The Ohio plant will not merge initially. When General Motors announced its plant in Tennessee last month, the American Federation of Auto Workers stated that automakers have a “moral obligation… to ensure that they are like brothers and sisters who make internal combustion engines, and are high-paying jobs in the union.”

UAW has tried many years to organize workers at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California

UAW has tried many years at the Tesla factory in Fremont, California to organize workers © Justin Sullivan/Getty

Masters said: “UAW will have to be very active in organizing these facilities.” “Now, it is more reactive than proactive… They have to look at the pictures of the entire car production parts, and then say: “What parts are we not organizing? “Then go after those.”

The American Federation of Automobile Workers stated that the transition to electric vehicles provides opportunities to create high-quality manufacturing jobs, but the United States will need “strong and forward-looking industrial policies” to achieve this goal.

The union is lobbying for policies that include retraining the displaced, creating “quality jobs” in the process of establishing electric vehicle charging infrastructure across the country and providing trade protection for “advanced vehicle technology”.

It also hopes to change current regulations so that consumer subsidies only apply to electric cars assembled in the United States. The federal government provides subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles to stimulate demand for products that currently account for 2% of the US auto market. Joe Biden’s government has not commented on this idea so far, and it faces uncertain prospects in Congress.

At the same time, the American Federation of Automobile Workers (UAW) appreciated the decision of American automakers to invest in American factories to produce electric vehicle technology and criticized the decision to keep jobs away from the American workforce.

For example, Ford said last month that it plans to open a new Battery R&D Facility In Michigan, the union stated that it would “make the members and families of Ford and the American Auto Workers Confederation prosper in the coming decades.”

Later in the same week, General Motors announced an investment of $1 billion to build electric cars in Mexico. UAW vice president Terry Dittes called this a “slap in the face” of union members and American taxpayers.

UAW head of legislation, Josh Nassar, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on May 5: “We must ensure that government funds are attached to labor standards and that this work is done in the United States.” If we don’t do this… there is no guarantee that future car jobs will become the good jobs we are accustomed to.”

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