Why Blame the Electric Car for the Automobile Worker Strike?

The transition to electric cars is the unspoken reason for the strike, according to the media.

My next car will be electric. My wife has one already. We had to transition. Because where we live north of San Francisco and its fog, we average 262 days of sunshine a year. We installed 12 solar panels that produce over 40kWH daily, a surplus of energy. It was time for an electric vehicle.

Many in the Western and Southwestern United States are basking in solar power and driving around in electric vehicles. The rest of country, which averages only 205 sunny days a year, may not be as fortunate. But still, all concede the transition to electric vehicles is inevitable.

But in the environs of Detroit, the heart of the U.S. auto industry is having some serious angina.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) union is striking against the top three U.S. automakers—GM, Ford and Stellantis, better known as Chrysler. When President Joe Biden joined the strikers outside GM’s distribution center in Belleview, Wayne County, Mich. in a show of solidarity on September 27, over 18,000 workers were on strike. The strike is affecting one assembly plant and 38 automotive part suppliers and warehouses across the U.S.

The electrification of America’s vehicles is the real yet unspoken reason for the UAW strike, according to popular media sites.

In “How Elon Musk and Tesla Helped Spark the Auto Strikes,” Wired magazine came to the conclusion that it was people like us, with our electric vehicles, that are the real reason for the UAW strike.

“This strike is about electrification,” said Mark Barrott, an automotive analyst at the Michigan-based consultancy Plante Moran, to Wired.

“The transition to E.V.s is dominating every bit of this discussion,” said John Casesa, senior managing director at the investment firm Guggenheim Securities, in Battle Over Electric Vehicles Is Central to Auto Strike in the New York Times.

While the UAW seeks to safeguard itself against plant closures (such as the closure of Stellantis’ Belvidere, Ill. plant because the cost to convert it E.V. production was too great) by the threat of strikes, the union has been mum about electric vehicles, Tesla and Elon Musk.

Electric Winners and Losers

As with every technology shift, there will be winners and losers. The winners will see the old technology in their wake and not pause for the fallout at corporate, societal and personal levels. U.S. automakers are struggling to transition—and under pressure and by force of will—may be able to save themselves. But what about the thousands of workers who will be displaced and the businesses that will be shut down? Electric vehicles require 30 percent fewer labor hours to assemble. Some parts (radiators, tailpipes, mufflers, radiators, etc.) will cease to exist.

The UAW has had its ranks reduced by 45 percent over the last 20 years. Tesla, which came out of nowhere to become the highest-valued automaker, pays $45 per hour for nonunion labor, while union workers are paid $63 per hour. This is more than twice the national hourly rate of $29.81, which equates to over $130,000 annually for a 40-hour workweek—that’s more than tech workers in Seattle and New York ($123,000) earn annually but less than those in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they earn $157,0001. The union is also asking for cost-of-living raises as well as compensation for several years in which no cost-of-living raises were provided. That’s not all. New hires will progress to the same pay as veteran workers in 90 days—compared to 8 years as agreed in a deal worked out in 2019.

Union president Shawn Fain is careful not to blame Tesla in his rhetoric. In a recent interview with CNBC, he was dismissive of the competitive pressures cited by the Big Three U.S. automakers and Elon Musk.

“Competition is a code word for race to the bottom, and I’m not concerned about Elon Musk building more rocket ships so he can fly into outer space and stuff,” said Fain, inexplicably mentioning Musk’s SpaceX but refusing to acknowledge Tesla.

During the Japanese car invasion, Detroit workers often turned to violence in their bitterness toward foreign-made cars—and their drivers, but little of that bitterness has emerged against electric cars and their drivers.

It’s more likely that the union has its eyes on the profit the Big Three automakers have made—a whopping $259 billion over the last 10 years, and this year already $32 billion—and wants a piece of it.

The sharing of corporate profits with labor is a time-honored move for the union. So is the parity of management and workers. It must not sit well with the UAW that CEO salaries are going through the roof while their own numbers are going down. The average autoworker’s wages have dropped 20 percent over the last 20 years. Meanwhile, GM’s Mary Barra made almost $29 million in 2022.

The automakers have said they would increase wages by 20 percent. That’s not enough, said the UAW, which is demanding a 40 percent increase.

1.  Emily Landes, Bay Area Tops the Nation for Both Tech Talent and Expenses, the Real Deal, July 19, 2023.