Last Friday the United Auto Workers (U.A.W.) union overwhelmingly voted to simultaneously strike at the auto assembly plants of each of America's "Big Three" automakers, Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis. Negotiations in the lead-up to the strike had been tense, with U.A.W. president saying that workers were "fed up with the status quo" and tossing the automakers counterproposal into a garbage can during a video update to members, adding “that’s where it belongs, the trash. Because that’s what it is.”
The U.A.W.'s demands are about what you'd expect, including a gradual 46 percent pay raise, to keep pace with the rising inflation and make up for lost wages in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis; a restoration of old-fashioned pension plans rather than 401(k)s; and a four-day work week.
But one under-remarked upon aspect of this strike, a specter lurking behind all of the rhetoric, is the threat of Electric Vehicles, which seem likely to upend the American auto industry as we know it. There are several reasons for this. First, in general it isn't as if existing auto plants are simply being repurposed to manufacture E.V.s. Instead, automakers are currently building E.V. specific plants, mostly in the South, where costs are lower.
Fighting a rear-guard action against EVs.
Second, even if those plants were being repurposed, current auto-workers wouldn't be able to keep their jobs. An E.V. isn't just a regular car outfitted with an electric motor. It's an entirely different type of machine, and assembling one requires different training and a different skill set. Moreover, it is a less labor intensive product to assemble. As Kevin Hassett explains:
The reality... is that it takes 40 percent fewer workers to make an electric vehicle than one with an internal-combustion engine. So, to use some back-of-the-envelope math, if baseline employment in the auto industry would, on average over the next ten years, have amounted to 1.2 million jobs, then the wholesale switch to EVs would cost 480,000 jobs. While that number of jobs lost seems almost implausibly large, that dynamic is already visible in the data. One estimate suggests that the switch to EVs had by 2019 led worldwide to a loss of 80,000 jobs. Ford itself recently laid off 3,000 high-wage workers to free funds to invest in EV production.
And third, the environmentalist lobby has declared total war on gas-and-diesel automobiles, and will settle for nothing less than their abolition within the next two decades. To that end, their political and bureaucratic allies have conspired to squeeze the industry out of existence through regulation while propping up their electric competitors with enormous sums of money. That's largely what the deceptively named Inflation Reduction Act was all about.
Though it has often been mentioned in passing, this aspect of the strike hasn't received anywhere near the attention it deserves. Ohio senator J. D. Vance is one of the few who has made it central to his commentary:
To his credit, former president Donald Trump has been sounding similar notes:
The best interests of American workers have always been my number one concern. That is why I strongly urge the U.A.W. to make the complete and total repeal of Joe Biden’s insane Electric Vehicle mandate their top, non-negotiable demand in any strike. If that disastrous Biden policy is allowed to stand, the U.S. auto industry will cease to exist, and all your jobs will be sent to China. That’s why there’s no such thing as a “fair transition” to all electric cars. For the American Autoworker, that’s a transition to Hell. Nothing is more important than terminating this job-crushing mandate.
They're right. And while the U.A.W. is certainly aware of this dynamic, they would do well to make a war on forced E.V. transition central to this strike. They're reluctant to do so, lest they anger the Leftists who usually side with Labor over Capital. But the E.V.-skeptical public would be on their side, in a way they wouldn't be if this were just about pensions and pay.