WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is proposing changes that would transform the U.S. transportation and energy sectors — and, officials promise, they won't leave workers behind.
In the U.S. auto industry, that means a hard pivot to electric vehicles and away from the gas and diesel engines that powered the industry and filled worker wallets for the past century. EVs require fewer parts and fewer people to assemble, but they would rely on an expanded network of charging stations, battery production and new energy sources that Democrats say will provide new job opportunities.
President Joe Biden has promised to be an ally to labor, to make it easier to unionize and to implement workplace protections such as guaranteed paid sick leave. He's already begun meeting with labor leaders, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and others last Wednesday and United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble remotely over the last few weeks.
Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, are raising concerns that industrial changes could leave people stranded, particularly in new energy fields — and leading members of the Biden administration are off to a rocky start assuring them otherwise. It's a debate many of the nation's 905,000 autoworkers will be watching closely.
The UAW historically supports Democratic candidates, but its member autoworkers represent many of the same political divisions cleaving the rest of the nation. Internal polling by the UAW estimates former President Donald Trump received 34% of the vote among its members and retirees, on par with the union's political split for the last four presidential elections.
But there's one thing most autoworkers have in common, said Art Wheaton, an automotive industry specialist at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School: "The big thing they're looking for is some sense of job security, which is what they look for all the time." Right now, "they're looking to survive the transition to electric vehicles."
Here's what several autoworkers said they'd like to see from the new power players in the nation's capital — and what they make of what's happened so far.
An end to the pandemic
Like many industries, the automotive sector was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Sales slumped in 2020, a shortage of microchips stalling production is expected to last the first half of this year, and for a while, manufacturing jobs plummeted, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. While jobs have largely bounced back, they remain below pre-pandemic levels.
In auto plants around the country, higher-than-normal percentages of workers are retiring or choosing not to show up to work as they fear being exposed to the virus or to grapple with child care responsibilities amid school and other business closures.
MaryLise Poole, 58, works in shipping and receiving at the Ford Motor Co.'s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne and said she's lost five cousins to the virus. She has a compromised immune system and often interacts with truck drivers who aren't willing to wear a mask even though they're required to.
COVID is "affecting all the plants and it's affecting me as a worker," she said. "I would like to see them get this virus under control, make it easier for everybody to come to work and be willing to come to work."
Biden has said addressing the pandemic is his top priority and has proposed a $1.9 trillion relief package, including $20 billion for a vaccine distribution program. The proposal also would include funding for emergency paid leave for workers. Congress is expected to introduce legislation that would enact the proposal shortly, but certain provisions are expected to face headwinds, especially in the narrowly controlled Democratic Senate.
For autoworkers who watched the industry's decline through the late 20th century and near-decimation during the Great Recession, the reliability of their job in the field remains a top priority.
However, autoworkers disagreed on whether the Biden administration's proposals and early policies are likely to provide that stability.
Art Reyes is a 53-year-old electrician at the General Motors Co. assembly plant in Flint, Mich. He said he's excited to see the administration encouraging electric vehicle production because the market is heading there, regardless of federal policy, and workers only have job stability if the company flourishes.
"These changes have traditionally occurred, and we can build whatever is put in front of us," he said. "The technology will continue to do things that will put pressure on workers to adapt. We've shown that we can do that. And I have every faith that our union will be able to negotiate things that will balance technology, safety and productivity gains to the benefit of workers."
Adam Bratcher, 37, is an hourly line worker at the Ford Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville, where they build Super Duty trucks and large SUVs such as the Expedition and the Lincoln Navigator.
He's concerned Biden's environmental proposals — including moves he's already made, such as halting the Keystone XL pipeline — will hurt gas prices and the viability of the oil, gas and coal that still powers U.S. manufacturing.
"Gas is a big deal on a big truck," he said. "If they do half the stuff they're talking about, I'll be out of a job."
Leading administration officials across Biden's Cabinet have promised they will invest in targeted work training programs that will help workers retain jobs in a transition to sustainable energy.
Reyes expressed confidence the government, the company and the union would deliver that help. Bratcher felt the opposite: "I have no faith in Joe Biden as any kind of an honest president."
Decades of companies offshoring manufacturing operations in search of cheaper labor, intensifying competition from foreign-owned rivals operating in the United States and a decline in U.S. automakers' market share has contributed to the long, steady decline of auto jobs in the U.S.
Both Biden and Trump pledged to fix that. Trump attempted to do so through corporate tax cuts, deregulation and tariffs, while Biden has said he'll focus on procurement and subsidies for research and development.
"We understand for profitability there's always going to be some suppliers that are offshore," said Rich LeTourneau, the UAW bargaining chairman for the GM assembly plant near Fort Wayne, Ind.
"But if we could keep the majority of our assembly divisions in the U.S., start firing up some of these plants that have been closed down, bring work to them. That's one thing I think a lot of autoworkers would like to see from the Biden administration."
One of Biden's first executive orders was to strengthen existing federal "Buy American" rules, and has promised significant subsidies to U.S. automakers for battery technology and electric vehicles.
Biden has said he'll work to make it easier to unionize and crack down on employers who violate labor laws.
He said he'll do so by pushing for the passage of the PRO Act, a labor bill that passed the Democratically controlled House last Congress. It would strengthen multiple labor-related rules and would override state "right to work" laws that make it illegal to require workers to join the union or pay union dues as a condition of employment. Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi are among the major auto-producing states that currently have right to work laws.
Almost all of the UAW members who spoke with The News said they would support rules that make it easier to create unions, especially for suppliers and autoworkers in plants owned by Toyota, Nissan, Honda and other non-unionized shops.
"The only ones that are worried about union organization are corporations, because the union prevents a corporation from basically walking all over their employees," said Richard Incrocci, a team leader at GM's Flint plant who supported Trump. Right-to-work states are "licensed to underpay individuals for their work" and unions are "the backbone of the country, responsible for a lot of the privileges the workforce has," he added.
But Bratcher, of Ford's Louisville plant, said he would prefer not to be a member of the union, which he said is filled with "crooks" at the top levels. As a newer employee (he's spent nine years at the plant), he worked for years to achieve legacy pay and will never qualify for a pension. It's part of a deal struck in 2007 that buoyed automakers but caused divisions among workers.
"It's divide and conquer. What have (the companies) done with the union? The union let them do it," he said. "We have this problem in America — everybody thinks about tomorrow, not four, eight, 10 years from now. We need to be on the same page as Americans, otherwise we're going to fall apart."