Months after the US auto industry was nearly crushed by the Great Recession, the head of the United Auto Workers union approached then-Vice President
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So during two meetings at Biden’s office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, then-UAW President Ron Gettelfinger implored Biden to get the laid-off workers to the front of the line for the new electric-vehicle jobs, according to a person in the room and another briefed on the interaction. Both times, they said, Biden said there was nothing he could do. He lacked support from other administration officials and couldn’t do it alone.
The encounters, which haven’t been previously reported, created the first crack between Biden and the UAW that has widened as Tesla led an electric-vehicle revolution that threatens union auto jobs, even as it promises to make a big dent in greenhouse gas emissions. The loan saved Tesla from a possible early demise, helping to eventually make it the world’s most valuable carmarker and CEO
The relationship between Biden, who calls himself the most-pro-labor president in history and has bet heavily on union support for his 2024 re-election bid, and the UAW now faces its most critical test yet with the union just days away from possibly striking all three Detroit automakers for the first time in history. At the heart of the dispute are EV battery-plant jobs, which pay less and are generally nonunion.
The UAW is demanding that EV workers be covered under the union’s master agreement to avoid having to organize each plant separately. Biden has appointed economic adviser
Former UAW President Bob King, who led the union from 2010 to 2014, draws a line from the Tesla loan to requirements about union jobs being stripped out of Biden’s $500 billion spending bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, which gave tax credits and other incentives for EVs made in the US. Some union officials blame him for not pushing back harder on the Democrat-controlled Senate or using his executive authority to enact something similar.
“He’s still got a lot of power as president, obviously, and I would argue he’s not doing enough” to make sure federal investments create union jobs, King said.
White House spokesman Michael Kikukawa said in a statement it would be “flat out wrong” to suggest that Biden hasn’t focused on union job creation. He pointed to a Treasury Department proposal that would implement generous tax incentives to green energy employers that pay prevailing wages and hire registered apprentices, two established ways to promote union labor. Kikukawa didn’t comment on the 2010 conversations with Biden.
Gettelfinger declined to comment through a spokesman. Tesla didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Outcome, Not Words
The Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Loan Program, the program that gave Tesla its loan, was approved by Congress in 2007 with support from the UAW, a major turn for a union that had previously expressed skepticism to climate legislation.
But it was Tesla that repaid its loan nine years early in 2013, making it arguably that program’s biggest success.
As Obama prepared to take office in January 2009, Biden’s team was tasked with figuring out how to use government dollars to create manufacturing jobs. He later chaired a White House task force on helping the middle class.
“Biden was very much in the thick of that thinking about how to ensure the US auto industry was stabilized,” said Bracken Hendricks, a climate policy analyst who advised the Obama transition team.
At the time, most efforts were focused on improving fuel economy, since electric cells were thought to be one of a few alternative fuels that could take decades to perfect and scale.
“I don’t think we really knew how fast it would shift,” King said.
Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America who was at the meetings with Gettelfinger and Biden, said he didn’t doubt the vice president’s commitment but was still disappointed with the lack of results.
“Like a lot of things in life, it’s the outcome that matters, not the words,” Cohen said. “And in this case, it was thousands of workers not getting a job.”
The transition prompted the companies to form joint ventures with Asian battery makers to manufacture the power cells in the US, which, in addition to employing fewer workers, are paying them well below the union rate. Works at Ultium, the GM and LG Energy Solution joint venture in Ohio, which recently voted to unionize, make a starting wage of about $20 an hour, compared to the top rate of $32 an hour at traditional assembly plants.
Privately, Biden understands why getting the EV transition right is so vital, said Rory Gamble, another former UAW president who stepped down in 2021. When Gamble led the union, the two men spoke frequently over Zoom and on the phone—more than the public knew at the time—alone and with aides present. When Gamble’s phone lit up with a blocked number, he knew who was calling.
“We had a number of conversations about EVs,” Gamble said. “I asked for a more cautious approach to EVs to make sure that we had infrastructure in place and make sure there was a market to support it.”
“He was very understanding,” Gamble added. “I had a lot of opportunities to talk to President Biden, a lot of opportunities to talk to his team. They constantly called, we were able to call them directly.”
The UAW has held off on endorsing Biden for re-election in 2024, citing lack of specific support for union labor in federally funded EV projects. Former President
“Our endorsements are going to be earned, not freely given,” UAW President Shawn Fain said on CNN on Monday.
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