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As Democrats back auto workers, GOP spots a divide over EVs

Republicans see a wedge between unions, Democrats

Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance is one of several Republicans telling auto workers that the Biden administration's push for electric vehicles isn't in the workers' interest.
Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance is one of several Republicans telling auto workers that the Biden administration's push for electric vehicles isn't in the workers' interest. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers are rallying around the United Auto Workers union in its strike against General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV, formerly Fiat Chrysler.

But as Democrats settle into pro-union messaging, Republicans are using the walkout to drive a wedge between the union and President Joe Biden’s push for electric vehicles. 

Roughly 13,000 workers walked out of three plants in Missouri, Michigan and Ohio — one plant belonging to each of the big Detroit automakers — early Friday after negotiators failed to agree on contracts before the 11:59 p.m. Thursday deadline. The walkout is the first in the union’s history against all three automakers.

“These are folks who have sacrificed over the years to make sure that these companies were successful and now that they’re very profitable, it’s time to share those profits to make sure that we can strengthen the American middle class,” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich. who joined a picket line at a Ford factory in Wayne, Mich., said in a video post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, in a sign that Republicans’ see an opportunity to tap potential union discontent with Democrats, said in a statement Wednesday he supports the UAW’s demand for higher wages. “But there is a 6,000-pound elephant in the room: the premature transition to electric vehicles,” he said. 

Biden, who has proclaimed himself one of the “most pro-union presidents,” rejected the view that his push for electric vehicles is at odds with union interests. He said at the White House Friday that he is sending acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and White House adviser Gene Sperling to help the parties reach agreement, and noted the companies’ offers should ensure that “record corporate profits mean record contracts.”

“Strong unions are critical to growing the economy and growing it from the middle out, the bottom up, not the top down,” Biden said. “That’s especially true as we transition to a clean energy future which are in the process of doing. I believe that transition should be fair, and a win win for auto workers and auto companies.”

Funding binge

The administration has been doling out funding provided by the 2021 infrastructure law for electric vehicle charging infrastructure and giving tax credits for electric vehicle buyers enacted in a 2022 reconciliation bill.

Autoworkers see the push to electric vehicles as resulting in jobs in non-union factories in the U.S. and abroad, a contradiction of Biden’s promises to boost domestic manufacturing. The workers are also disgruntled about the EPA’s proposed rule on tailpipe emissions.

The walkout began after the carmakers’ offers failed to meet the UAW’s demands for a double-digit wage increase over four years, reinstatement of cost-of-living pay increases, and more paid time off. 

“These companies have got to come to the pump for their workers,” Shawn Fain, UAW president, told CNN as the walkout began. “They haven’t been there, they haven’t taken care of their workers …. And they’re calling us greedy.”

Fain’s ambivalent comments about Biden and Democrats may be one reason members of both parties are using the walkout as an opportunity to demonstrate their sympathy for the workers. Fain said in May that he is holding out on endorsing Biden’s reelection due to the president’s electric vehicle policies and other issues. He has also said he hoped a strike would make Biden “pick a side” when it comes to organized labor.

After the strike began, Michigan’s Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow also circulated photos on X of her joining a picket line and meeting with workers. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said they stood in solidarity with the UAW.

House Democrats, including Summer Lee of Pennsylvania, Haley Stevens of Michigan and Cori Bush of Missouri, took to the floor Thursday to declare their support. 

But Republicans aren’t ceding the union ground to the Democrats. 

“Rooting for the auto workers across our country demanding higher wages and an end to political leadership’s green war on their industry,” Vance said on X as the strike began. 

His Wednesday statement said Vance was one of the most pro-union Republicans, and it urged UAW leadership to “change course” prior to the contract deadline and resist Biden’s electric vehicle policies. 

“Every time his administration drives up the price of gasoline, there is an American auto worker who loses bargaining power and an American family who loses their access to a middle-class life,” he said.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., also posted on X, decrying the administration for spending on “radical climate mandates” instead of workers. He said auto workers deserve a raise “and they deserve to have their jobs protected from Joe Biden’s stupid climate mandates that are destroying the US auto industry and making China rich.”

Union wary

Although Fain has questioned Biden’s electric vehicle policies, the UAW has also been wary of the Republicans’ electric vehicle resistance.

On Thursday, when the House voted to pass legislation that would prevent the EPA from signing off on California’s effort to phase out internal combustion engines, the union was among the groups opposed. “Union workers aren’t political pawns for the culture war,” the UAW said in a statement.

Former President Donald Trump, the front-runner among Republicans to be the presidential nominee in 2024, joined the debate Wednesday, writing on his website that Biden’s push for electric vehicles amounted to a “transition to hell” for the American auto worker.

Trump called out a recent EPA-proposed rule that cracks down on tailpipe emissions, which Republicans have claimed would essentially force a phase out of internal combustion engines in favor of electric vehicles.

“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,” Trump wrote. “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.”

The UAW plans to strike at more facilities over time, according to its website.