Last night, former president and current Republican front-runner Donald Trump stood before a crowd in suburban Detroit and tested his new lines of attack against electric vehicles.
Electric vehicles are too expensive, the former president argued (via Detroit News); they are insufficient in scope and will lead to job losses in the United States. Electric vehicle batteries were another target. “They’re getting rid of it,” Trump said, according to Speech blog, “and a lot of bad things are happening, and when they mine the ground to make these batteries, it’s going to be very bad for the environment.” But those trying to protect the environment by promoting electric vehicles are “environmental fools,” he said.
His comments are the latest attempt to make electric vehicles a major issue in American politics. President Joe Biden has made electric vehicles a major part of his environmental legacy, and Trump feels the issue could be used to drain support from working-class voters. But like most recent Republican efforts to politicize electric vehicles, they are largely incoherent and ignore the nuanced reality of what most auto workers think about electric vehicles.
The latest attempt by Trump and his Republican brethren to make electric vehicles a major issue in American politics
The latest aspect of that effort is the United Auto Workers of America strike, which has rocked Detroit and surrounding areas over the past two weeks and sent candidates from both parties scrambling to shore up worker support. The strike is a watershed moment for the auto industry, where workers are demanding higher wages, better job security and more manageable schedules. Electric vehicles are also on the table, with UAW President Shawn Fain calling for a “just transition” to electric cars.
What is clear, however, is that union members aren’t really buying what either party is selling. Workers may agree with Trump that electric vehicles are too expensive or that charging infrastructure isn’t up to par, but they also don’t want to see them stopped in their tracks . They are also concerned about Biden’s efforts to speed up production of electric vehicles by incentivizing automakers to upgrade their factories and car buyers through generous tax credits.
“We have a lot of people who are frustrated, just with all of them,” said Aaron Westaway, a UAW member from outside Detroit. E&E News. “Nobody’s happy with Trump, nobody’s happy with Biden.”
Union workers’ concerns reflect the attitudes of most Americans as a whole. According to Pew Research, 50% of U.S. adults say they are unlikely to purchase an electric vehicle, while 38% say they would probably consider a battery-powered vehicle. Concerns about charging and range are at the top of the list. But environmental concerns also loom large, with many people saying they would consider an electric vehicle as a way to reduce carbon emissions.
What often goes unsaid about autoworkers and their attitudes toward electric vehicles is where the money is going. And right now, much of that is going to factories and plants outside their Midwest strongholds. For example, Ford is building a huge battery factory in Tennessee, in a joint venture with Korean battery manufacturer SK Innovation. Meanwhile, workers at a General Motors joint venture battery plant in Ohio voted overwhelmingly to unionize under the UAW late last year, marking a major victory for the union.
“Nobody’s happy with Trump, nobody’s happy with Biden.”
If more factories follow their lead and the transition to electric vehicles happens more on the union’s terms, it’s likely that worker attitudes will shift in favor of electrification. But right now, most electric vehicle work is done by non-union workers. And experts say that needs to change for opinions to soften.
“What this industry talk about the UAW’s demands costing too much alongside the transition to electric vehicles seems to overlook is the fact that automakers receive billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded electric vehicle subsidies to make this work,” said Sydney Ghazarian, an organizer with the climate association. Trade union network focused on sustainable development, declared during the Citations needed podcast recently. “It’s their responsibility to use public funds in a way that serves the public and planetary good, you know, and the key to that is not leaving workers and communities behind in the transition to a green economy .”
Ghazarian argued that Trump and the Republican Party’s attacks on electric vehicles smack of “fake populism” since Republicans are largely opposed to unionization. When he was president, Trump appointed anti-union judges and members to the National Labor Relations Board. Trump’s Supreme Court justices also issued devastating rulings for public sector unions. And his promises to prevent the closure of auto plants have largely failed.
Still, Biden has his work cut out for him as he seeks to build support for 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 record profits made by the Big Three automakers, Ford, GM and Stellantis.
“It is their responsibility to use public funding in a way that serves the public and planetary good”
But its efforts to make the transition to electric vehicles as beneficial for workers as it is for the environment are still a work in progress. Striking UAW members may be skeptical about whether electric vehicles are affordable or practical enough for themselves, but that reflects widely held attitudes about quickly going electric. And that skepticism can’t be ignored — which is why the Biden administration is prioritizing billions of dollars in federal funding to install a robust electric vehicle charging network.
Affordability remains a major concern, but vehicle prices are increasing everywhere, both for electric vehicles and gasoline vehicles. And automakers are still losing billions of dollars each year on electric vehicles, with profits from their gas-powered vehicles redirected toward the huge investments needed to finance the transition.
What is clear is that nothing is likely to stop the EV train now that it is in motion. Automakers are engaged, and UAW leaders want to make sure workers share in the profits. And China looms large in everything, with the country producing the bulk of the components that go into making electric vehicles – a major concern for the union.
What’s unclear is whether Trump’s plan to drive a wedge between autoworkers and environmentalists will pay off. In his speech Wednesday, Trump attempted to deepen the division, placing blame on Biden and Democrats for the uncertainty around electric vehicles.
“The auto industry is being murdered,” Trump said, according to Detroit News. “If you want to buy an electric car, it’s entirely possible. I completely agree. But we shouldn’t force consumers to buy electric vehicles they don’t want to buy.”
But he also called the union’s strike largely unnecessary and, in a major headache, said auto workers would probably be out of work in a few years anyway, so why bother? “You’re all on the picket lines and everything else,” Trump said. “But it doesn’t make any difference what you get, because in two years you’ll all be bankrupt.”
Certainly, the factory Trump spoke at was a non-union factory. And when reporters asked those attending the speech if they were connected to the UAW or the auto industry, many said they were neither.