Last night, former president and current Republican front-runner Donald Trump appeared before a crowd in suburban Detroit and rehearsed his new lines of attack against electric vehicles.
Electric vehicles are too expensive, argued the former president (through The Detroit News); They do not have enough reach and will cause job losses in the United States. Electric vehicle batteries were another target. “They get rid of them,” Trump said. according speech blog, “and a lot of bad things happen, and when they dig it out of the ground to make those batteries, it’s going to be very bad for the environment.” But those who try to protect the environment by promoting electric vehicles are “environmental lunatics,” he said.
His comments were the latest attempt to make electric vehicles a major issue in American politics. President Joe Biden has made electric vehicles an important part of his environmental legacy, and Trump feels the issue could be used to undermine support among working-class voters. But like most other recent efforts by Republicans to politicize electric vehicles, it is largely incoherent and ignores the nuanced reality of how most auto workers feel about electric vehicles.
The latest attempt by Trump and his Republican brethren to make electric vehicles a major wedge issue in American politics
The latest twist in this effort is the United Auto Workers of America strike, which has shaken Detroit and surrounding areas for the past two weeks and sent candidates from both parties scrambling to shore up support among workers. The strike is a watershed moment for the auto industry as workers push for higher wages, greater job security and more manageable schedules. Electric vehicles are also on the table, with UAW President Shawn Fain calling for a “just transition” to electric cars.
What is clear, however, is that union members are not actually buying what each party is selling. Workers may agree with Trump that electric vehicles are too expensive or that charging infrastructure isn’t up to par, but they also don’t want him to stop dead. They are also concerned about Biden’s efforts to speed up production of electric vehicles by providing incentives to automakers to modernize factories and to car buyers through generous tax credits.
“We have a lot of people who are frustrated, just with all of them,” said Aaron Westaway, a UAW member from outside Detroit. said E&E News. “No one is happy with Trump, no one is happy with Biden.”
Concerns among unionized workers reflect the attitudes of most Americans, broadly speaking. According to Pew research, 50 percent of American adults say they are unlikely to purchase an electric vehicle, while 38 percent said they would probably consider a battery-powered vehicle. Concerns about charging and range top the list. But environmental concerns also feature prominently, with many people saying they would consider an electric vehicle as a way to reduce carbon emissions.
What often isn’t said about auto workers and their attitudes toward electric vehicles is where the money flows. And right now, much of it is going to factories and plants outside its strongholds in the Midwest. Ford is building a massive battery plant in Tennessee, for example, as a joint venture with Korean battery maker SK Innovation. Meanwhile, workers at a General Motors joint venture battery plant in Ohio voted overwhelmingly to unionize under the UAW late last year, in a major victory for the union.
“No one is happy with Trump, no one is happy with Biden.”
If more factories follow suit and more of the transition to electric vehicles is implemented on union terms, worker attitudes are likely to shift in favor of electrification. But right now, most of the work related to electric vehicles is done by non-union workers. And experts say that must change for opinions to soften.
“What this industry narrative about UAW lawsuits costing too much during the transition to electric vehicles seems to ignore is the fact that auto companies are getting billions of dollars from federally funded electric vehicle subsidies. taxpayers to make it work,” said Sydney Ghazarian, an organizer with the climate organization. Labor Network focused on Sustainability, said in the Appointments needed podcast recently. “It is their responsibility to use public financing in a way that serves the public and planetary good, and to do so it is essential not to leave workers and communities behind in the transition to a green economy.”
Ghazarian argued that Trump and the GOP’s attacks on electric vehicles smack of “false populism” since Republicans largely oppose unionization. When he was president, Trump appointed anti-union judges and anti-union members of the National Labor Relations Board. Trump’s Supreme Court justices also issued rulings that were devastating to public sector unions. And his promises to prevent the closure of car factories largely failed.
Still, Biden has his work cut out for him as he seeks to shore up support among working-class families. Biden became the first modern president to visit a picket line this week when he stood alongside striking UAW members in Wayne County, Michigan. Biden told workers they “deserve a significant raise,” citing record profits made by the big three automakers, Ford, GM and Stellantis.
“It is your responsibility to use public financing in a way that serves the public and planetary good”
But their efforts to frame the transition to electric vehicles as good for workers and the environment are still a work in progress. Striking UAW members may be skeptical about whether electric vehicles are affordable or practical enough for them, but that reflects widespread attitudes about the rapid shift to electric. And that skepticism can’t be ignored, which is why the Biden administration is prioritizing billions in federal funding toward installing a robust electric vehicle charging network.
Affordability remains a major concern, but vehicle prices are rising across the board for both electric and gasoline vehicles. And automakers continue to lose billions of dollars each year on electric vehicles, with profits made on gasoline vehicles redirected to the huge investments needed to finance the transition.
What is clear is that nothing is likely to stop the electric train now that it is moving. Automakers are committed, and UAW leaders want to ensure workers share in the profits. And China looms large in everything, as the country produces most of the components used in electric vehicles, one of the union’s main concerns.
What’s not clear is whether Trump’s plan to drive a wedge between autoworkers and environmentalists will bear fruit. In his speech on Wednesday, Trump attempted to highlight the divide, blaming Biden and Democrats for the uncertainty around electric vehicles.
“The auto industry is being murdered,” Trump said, according to Detroit News. “If you want to buy an electric car, that’s perfectly fine. I’m totally for it. But we shouldn’t force consumers to buy electric vehicles they don’t want to buy.”
But he also called the union’s strike largely pointless and, in a major headache, said autoworkers would probably be out of work in a few years anyway, so why bother? “They’re all on picket lines and everything,” Trump said. “But it doesn’t matter in the slightest what you achieve because, in two years, you’re all going to be out of business.”
To be sure, the factory where Trump spoke was not unionized. And when reporters asked those attending the speech if they were connected to the UAW or the auto industry, Many said they were neither..