WASHINGTON — Two of President Joe Biden’s top goals — fighting climate change and expanding the middle class by supporting unions — are colliding in the key battleground state of Michigan as the United Auto Workers go on strike against the country’s biggest car companies.
The strike involves 13,000 workers so far, less than one-tenth of the union’s total membership, but it’s a sharp test of Biden’s ability to hold together an expansive and discordant political coalition while running for reelection.
Biden is trying to turbocharge the market for electric vehicles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent China from solidifying its grip on a growing industry. His signature legislation, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, includes billions of dollars in incentives to get more clean cars on the roads.
Some in the UAW fear the transition will cost jobs because electric vehicles require fewer people to assemble. Although there will be new opportunities in the production of high-capacity batteries, there’s no guarantee that those factories will be unionized, and they’re often being planned in states more hostile to organized labor.
“The president is in a really tough position,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “What he needs to be the most pro-labor president ever and the greenest president ever is a magic wand.”
The union is demanding steep raises and better benefits, and it’s escalating the pressure with its targeted strike. Brittany Eason, who has worked for 11 years at the Ford Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., said workers are worried that they’ll “be pushed out by computers and electric vehicles.”
“How do you expect people to work with ease if they’re in fear of losing their jobs?” said Eason, who planned to walk the picket line over the weekend. Electric vehicles may be inevitable, she said, but changes need to be made “so everybody can feel secure about their jobs, their homes and everything else.”
Biden on Friday acknowledged the tension in remarks from the White House, saying the transition to clean energy “should be fair and a win-win for autoworkers and auto companies.”
He dispatched top aides to Detroit to help push negotiations along, and he prodded management to make more generous offers to the union, saying “they should go further to ensure record corporate profits mean record contracts.”
As part of its demands, the UAW wants to represent employees at battery plants, which would send ripple effects through an industry that has seen supply chains upended by technological changes.
“Batteries are the power trains of the future,” said Dave Green, a regional director for the union in Ohio and Indiana. “Our workers in engine and transmission areas need to be able to move into the new generation.”
Executives, however, are keen to keep a lid on labor costs as their companies prepare to compete in a global market. China is the dominant 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,” said Suzanne Clark, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Some environmental groups, conscious of how labor remains crucial to securing 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 national outreach director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Presidential politics have increased the stakes for the strike, which could damage the economy going into an election year, depending on how long it lasts and whether it spreads. It’s also centered in Michigan, a key part of Biden’s 2020 victory and critical to his chances at a second term.
Former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, sees an opportunity to drive a wedge between Biden and workers. He issued a statement saying Biden “will murder the U.S. auto industry and kill countless union autoworker jobs forever, especially in Michigan and the Midwest. There is no such thing as a ‘fair transition’ to the destruction of these workers’ livelihoods and the obliteration of this cherished American industry.”
In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump said that “electric cars are going to be made in China,” not the United States, and he said “the autoworkers are being sold down the river by their leadership.”
Trump’s comments have not earned him any support from Shawn Fain, president of the UAW.
“That’s not someone that represents working-class people,” he told MSNBC earlier this month. “He’s part of the billionaire class. We need to not forget that. And that’s what our members need to think about when they go to vote.”
Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, said Trump “will say literally anything to distract from his long record of breaking promises and failing America’s workers.” He noted that Trump would have let auto companies go bankrupt during the financial crisis rather than bail 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 for battery plants in Tennessee and Kentucky, part of a joint venture by Ford and a South Korean company, Fain said the federal government was “actively funding the race to the bottom with billions in public money.”
Madeline Janis — co-executive director of Jobs to Move America, which works on environmental and worker issues — said the White House needs to do more to alleviate labor challenges.
“We don’t have enough career pathways for people to see themselves in this future and let go of the jobs in industries that are causing our world to be in crisis,” she said.