Last night, former President and current Republican frontrunner Donald Trump appeared before a crowd in suburban Detroit and tried out his new attack lines against electric vehicles.
EVs are too expensive, the former president argued (via The Detroit News); they don’t have enough range and will spur American job losses. EV batteries were another target. “They get rid of them,” Trump said, according to Discourse Blog, “and lots of bad things happen, and when they’re digging it out of the ground to make those batteries, it’s going to be very bad for the environment.” But those trying to protect the environment by promoting EVs are “environmental lunatics,” he said.
His comments were the latest attempt to make electric vehicles a major wedge issue in American politics. President Joe Biden has made EVs a major part of his environmental legacy, and Trump senses that the issue could be used to leach support from working-class voters. But like most other recent efforts by Republicans to politicize EVs, it’s largely incoherent and ignores the nuanced reality of how most autoworkers feel about EVs.
The latest attempt by Trump and his GOP brethren to make electric vehicles a major wedge issue in American politics
The latest wrinkle to this effort is the United Auto Workers of America strike, which has roiled Detroit and the surrounding area for the last 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, with workers pushing for higher wages, improved job security, and more manageable hours. EVs are also on the table, with UAW President Shawn Fain calling for a “just transition” to electric cars.
What’s clear, though, is that union members aren’t really buying what either party is selling. Workers may agree with Trump that EVs are too expensive or that the charging infrastructure isn’t up to snuff, but they also don’t want to see it stopped dead in its tracks. They also have concerns about Biden’s efforts to accelerate EV production by providing incentives to automakers to retrofit factories and to car buyers through generous tax credits.
“We’ve got a lot of people that are frustrated, just with all of them,” Aaron Westaway, a UAW member from outside Detroit, told E&E News. “Nobody’s happy with Trump, nobody’s happy with Biden.”
The concerns among union workers reflect the attitudes of most Americans, writ large. According to Pew Research, 50 percent of US adults say they are unlikely to buy an EV, while 38 percent said they were likely to consider a battery-powered vehicle. Concerns about charging and range are at the top of the list. But environmental concerns also rank high, with many people saying they would consider an EV as a way to reduce carbon emissions.
What often goes unsaid about autoworkers and their attitudes about EVs is where the money is flowing. And right now, much of it is going to factories and plants outside their 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 overwhelmingly voted in favor of unionizing under the UAW late last year, in a major win for the union.
“Nobody’s happy with Trump, nobody’s happy with Biden.”
If more factories follow their lead, and more of the EV transition is being meted out on the union’s terms, it’s likely worker attitudes will shift in favor of electrification. But right now, most of the work on electric vehicles is being done by non-union labor. And experts say that needs to change in order for opinions to soften.
“What this industry narrative about UAW’s demands costing too much alongside the EV transition seems to neglect is the fact that auto companies are getting billions of dollars from taxpayer-funded EV subsidies to make it work,” Sydney Ghazarian, an organizer with the climate-focused Labor Network for Sustainability, said on the Citations Needed podcast recently. “It’s their responsibility to use public funding in ways that serve the public and planetary good, you know, and central to that is not leaving workers and communities behind in the transition to a green economy.”
Ghazarian argued that Trump and the GOP’s attacks on EVs smacks of “faux populism” since Republicans largely stand opposed to unionization. When he was president, Trump appointed anti-union judges and anti-union members to the National Labor Relations Board. Trump’s Supreme Court judges also issued rulings that were devastating to public sector unions. And his promises to prevent auto factories from shutting down 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 the record profits made by the Big Three automakers, Ford, GM, and Stellantis.
“It’s their responsibility to use public funding in ways that serve the public and planetary good”
But his efforts to frame the EV transition as good for workers as it will be for the environment is still a work in progress. Striking UAW members may be skeptical about whether EVs are affordable or practical enough for themselves, but that reflects widely held 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 for the installation of a robust EV charging network.
Affordability is still a major concern, but vehicle prices are going up across the board, both for EVs and for gas vehicles. And automakers are still losing billions of dollars each year on EVs, with their gas-vehicle profits being redirected into the enormous investments needed to fund the transition.
What is clear is that nothing is likely to stop the EV train now that it’s in motion. The automakers are committed, and UAW leadership wants to ensure that workers get to share the profits. And China looms large over everything, with the country producing the bulk of the components that go into EVs — a major concern of the union.
What isn’t clear is whether Trump’s plan to drive a wedge between autoworkers and environmentalists will pay off. In his speech Wednesday, Trump tried to play up the division, heaping blame on Biden and the Democrats for the uncertainty around EVs.
“The auto industry is being assassinated,” Trump said, according to Detroit News. “If you want to buy an electric car, that’s absolutely fine. I’m all for it. But we should not be forcing consumers to buy electric vehicles they don’t want to buy.”
But he also cast the union’s strike as largely pointless and, in a major head-scratcher, said that autoworkers would likely be out of work in a few years anyway, so why bother? “You’re all on picket lines and everything,” Trump said. “But it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what you get because, in two years, you’re all going to be out of business.”
To be sure, the factory where Trump spoke was a non-union facility. And when reporters asked people attending the speech whether they were connected to the UAW or the auto industry, many said they were neither.