On the outskirts of Normal, Ill., Is a factory that illustrates the challenges facing the American labor movement as the auto industry moves towards electrification.
A former Mitsubishi factory, electric vehicle start-up Rivian will begin manufacturing pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles there next month. It will employ 1,800 by next month, with plans to increase to 2,500 by the end of the year.
Mitsubishi closed the plant in 2015, laying off a unionized workforce of 4,000 at its peak at the turn of the century. Rivian bought the plant for $ 16 million from a liquidator and will launch its first products from there.
But the plant, even though it employs some of the same workers, is no longer a union store, and the situation at Normal illustrates the changing dynamics in the US auto industry.
Electric vehicles are recognized as the undisputed future of the industry. Ford and General Motors are investing billions in electric vehicle construction projects as they compete with Tesla, which has become the leading manufacturer of electric vehicles in the United States.
The US auto industry is fundamental to US manufacturing, employing nearly 390,000 in auto manufacturers and another 539,000 in the supply chain.
But electric vehicles raise the possibility of job losses for assembly workers and the automotive supply chain. Electric vehicles generally require fewer components, which means they require fewer personnel to manufacture the parts and assemble the vehicles.
Plus, fewer jobs in electric vehicles are likely to be union jobs, which tends to provide workers with better wages and benefits. Rivian and Tesla are not unionized, and neither are many companies in the electric vehicle supply chain.
A 2020 report from the Left Institute for Economic Policy found that unionized workers earned 11.2 percent more than non-union peers. The membership of the United Auto Workers union has declined since it peaked at 1.5 million in 1979, and real wages for auto workers have fallen 17 percent since 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States. The union still represents 400,000 workers, but a 2018 UAW study said as many as 35,000 of those union jobs could disappear as a result of the transition to electric vehicles.
“When you look at the fact that you need fewer people. . . and the supply chain involves more non-union employers, you have significant job loss potential, ”said Marick Masters, professor of commerce at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Rivian declined to comment on unionization at the Illinois plant. The UAW said in January 2020 that it looked forward to “these jobs coming back and the UAW members having a chance to organize again,” but Normal Mayor Chris Koos said that ‘he didn’t think any discussions had taken place between Rivian and the UAW yet.
“Personally, I am a supporter of unions,” Koos said. “They bring a lot to the table. . . But faced with this situation, it’s a decision between Rivian and the staff. “
While UAW President Rory Gamble has said the need to organize workers for new electric car makers is “a given,” it will not be an easy task.
Workers at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., Have long tried to organize through the UAW. More than three years ago, Elon Musk’s company fired Richard Ortiz, who had distributed pro-union leaflets in the factory parking lot, and it was only this year that the National Labor Relations Board of the United States ruled that his dismissal was illegal. The board ordered Tesla to rehire him with back wages.
Tesla also broke the law by banning employees from speaking to reporters, in retaliation against another union activist and “coercively interrogating” other supporters, the board said.
He also directly criticized Musk, claiming that a tweet he sent in May 2018 posed an illegal threat to the pay of workers considering unionization. Musk wrote that workers could unionize if they wanted to, “but why pay union dues and give up stock options for nothing?”
He was ordered to delete the tweet. On May 7, he remained online.
Koos said in conversations with Rivian executives, Tesla seemed more open to a unionized workforce.
A bigger obstacle may be the changing supply chain. Decades ago, the UAW used its relationships with Ford, GM and Chrysler to unionize suppliers. Now the biggest battery makers, Panasonic and LG Chem, are located in Asia, and electric vehicle suppliers in the United States are less likely to be unionized.
GM and a unit of LG Chem have a joint venture that is building factories in Ohio and Tennessee. The Ohio plant will not be unionized initially. When GM announced the Tennessee plant last month, the UAW said the automaker had “a moral obligation. . . to make sure these are well-paying union jobs like their siblings who make internal combustion engines ”.
“The UAW is going to have to be very aggressive in trying to organize these facilities,” Masters said. “Right now, it’s more reactive than proactive. . . They have to look at the big picture of auto production parts and say, “What parts haven’t we organized? and go after those.
The UAW said the shift to EVs presents an opportunity to create high-quality manufacturing jobs, but the United States will need a “strong, forward-looking industrial policy” to achieve it.
The union is pushing for policies that would include retraining displaced workers, creating “quality jobs” as part of building a national electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and trade protections for “advanced technology for vehicles. vehicles ”.
He also wants to change current legislation so that consumer subsidies only apply to electric vehicles assembled in the United States. The federal government subsidizes electric vehicle purchases to stimulate demand for a product that currently accounts for 2 percent of the US auto market. Joe Biden’s administration has yet to comment on the idea, and it faces an uncertain outlook in Congress.
Meanwhile, the UAW has praised decisions by US automakers to invest in US factories for EV technologies and criticized the decisions to keep work away from the US workforce.
For example, Ford said last month that it plans to open a new battery R&D center in Michigan, which the union said would “position Ford and UAW members and families to prosper for decades.”
Later the same week, GM announced a $ 1 billion investment to build electric vehicles in Mexico. UAW Vice President Terry Dittes called it a “slap in the face” to union members and American taxpayers.
“We need to make sure we tie government funding to labor standards and make sure the work is done in the United States,” UAW legislative director Josh Nassar told a subcommittee on May 5. of the United States House. “If we don’t… there’s no guarantee that the automotive jobs of the future will be the good jobs we’re used to.