BEV Focus Moves to Forefront in UAW Talks

Ford CEO Jim Farley says the union is holding up a deal over concerns with battery plants that don’t even exist yet. But analysts say those facilities are pivotal to the UAW’s future.

Joseph Szczesny

October 3, 2023

5 Min Read
UAW says it is trying to stop race to bottom in middle class wages.Getty Images

Conflicts over the future of battery-electric vehicles are central to the negotiations and strikes in the auto industry as the UAW presses to make sure the BEV transition proceeds on terms favorable to the union and does not lead to what UAW President Shawn Fain describes as a race to the bottom in middle class wages.

The fight over BEVs spilled into the open last Friday with Ford CEO Jim Farley claiming the automaker and the union were close to an agreement around the economics for a new contract but that the BEV question had become a significant obstacle to a settlement.

In a media briefing in which his frustration with the negotiations was on display, Farley emphasizes that the battery plants in contention won’t be built and running for several years yet and even walked back his widely reported remarks that BEVs need 40% less labor to build, saying Ford actually plans to add jobs in next few years as its electric fleet expands.

However, Fain says it isn’t all about BEV plants and that other issues remain unresolved at Ford.

Either way, the importance of the BEV issue to the union can’t be underestimated at this point, says Stephen J. Silvia, a professor at American University in Washington, DC, and the author of a new book, “The UAW’s Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign-Owned Vehicle Plants.” 

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“The (union ratification) losses at (Volkswagen in Tennessee and Nissan in Mississippi) don’t make organizing battery plants any easier,” Silvia notes in an email to Wards. “(But) joint ventures with Big Three partners may be easier to organize than solo foreign-owned plants. The time to set the precedent is now regarding both unionization and the wage scale at battery plants.

“Unions in Brazil, France, Germany and Japan all have concerns about U.S. labor practices,” he adds. “(German union) IG Metall became more active in assisting the UAW when Daimler management decided to build the C-Class sedan in the U.S. The fear was it would cut into German employment and increase downward pressure on wages.”

The UAW leadership has some bitter memories of its efforts at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, TN, where the UAW narrowly lost an organizing drive, points out Harley Shaiken, a labor expert and professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley.

Both Shaiken and Silvia note Tennessee’s conservative Republican political establishment mounted an anti-union public-relations campaign that offset the promise of neutrality made by Volkswagen management under pressure from I.G. Metal.

Before the pivotal vote supervised by the National Labor Relations Board in February 2014, which the union lost 712 to 626, members of the Tennessee legislature also threatened to cut off the state’s assistance to Volkswagen of America if workers elected to join the UAW. “They were really strident,” Shaiken says.

In September 2021, Ford announced plans for the Blue Oval, a $6 billion project for a new BEV assembly plant and a joint venture battery plant on 3,000 acres (1,214 ha) outside of Memphis, TN. The site, which eventually could employ 6,000 workers, is three times the size of the Ford’s Rouge complex in Dearborn, MI, notes Shaiken.

Ford spokesperson T.R. Reid notes the company has promised the UAW it would remain neutral in any organizing campaign.

Meanwhile, anti-union attitudes seem to have hardened among conservative Republicans throughout the South. Opposition recently was on display with GOP Presidential candidates such as Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina}, who suggested striking workers should be fired, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who bragged about how she kept unions from organizing a number of auto plants in the state while governor.

Chuck Browning, the head of the union’s Ford Department who is responsible for negotiating the new contract with the automaker, says the UAW’s role is essential to the company.

“We’re working it out,” Browning says following the launch of the UAW’s first strike at Ford in 50 years. “They don’t want to talk about it. Unfortunately for them, we’ve got them at the bargaining table.”

Browning, who served as a top administrative assistant to former UAW presidents Bob King and Dennis Williams, is a veteran of the UAW’s struggle in Chattanooga.

“I know what happened. I was there,” he says.

General Motors has followed a different course from Ford, Shaiken says. It set up a joint venture battery plant in northeastern Ohio, a region with a long and rich history of union organization. GM also is building a battery plant next to an assembly plant in Spring Hill, TN, which was easily unionized more than 30 years ago under a special agreement with the UAW that never stirred any political fuss, he adds.

It appears Ford was either oblivious to the UAW’s history in Tennessee or did not care, Shaiken says.

Organizing battery plants is essential to the UAW, he says. “Batteries are the new powertrains.”

Farley and GM CEO Mary Barra are blaming the strike on UAW President Shawn Fain.

“Shawn (Fain) has been on TV more than Jake at State Farm,” says Farley, who like Barra suggests the UAW president is holding up the deal to the detriment of the union’s members simply to make history.

“By their own admission, the UAW leadership’s plan from the beginning has been to drag their membership into a long, unnecessary strike to further their own personal and political agendas,” Barra says in a statement released Friday after the strike was extended to GM’s Lansing, MI, and Ford’s Chicago assembly plants. “Their leaked text messages from last week stated their plan to keep us ‘wounded for months’ and cause ‘recurring reputation damage and operational chaos.’”

Fain says he is trying to stop a race to the bottom, where employees labor for low wages and negligible benefits.

“That is what we’re striking about,” says Scott Houldieson, a union activist and member of UAW Local 551, which is now out on strike at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant. “We want to stop it.”

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