Rick Haglund: Biden says clean energy will create union jobs. But companies may have other ideas.

October 10, 2021 7:10 am

Workers at the Ford Motor Co. Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn watch President Joe Biden deliver remarks on the electric F-150 Lightning pickup truck, which will be produced at the factory, and his American Jobs Plan. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

During a visit to a union training center in Howell on Tuesday, President Joe Biden touted his ambitious vision for a clean energy future.

Biden is pushing for multi-trillion dollar government investments in, among many other things, a massive shift from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles.

“I want those jobs here in Michigan, not halfway around the globe,” he said during his Howell appearance.

Biden’s infrastructure and Build Back Better plans being negotiated by the administration and Congress could create more than 10 million good-paying clean energy jobs, including 1 million in the auto industry, the president has said. He wants most of those jobs to carry the union label.

“Good union jobs . . . prevailing wage jobs,” Biden said. “Wages that give you dignity, that you can raise a family on, that you can hold your head up. This is a blue-collar blueprint for how we restore America’s pride.”

But the companies expected to create those new union jobs might have a different idea.

Last summer, the New York Times told the story of Assembly Solar, a 1,200-acre solar electricity farm under construction near Flint.

After seeing a company help-wanted ad, local electrical union organizer Kellogg Dipzinski contacted Assembly and said his union could provide workers the company needed.

“Hahahahaha . . . yes — help needed on unskilled low-wage workers,” was the company’s response, according to the Times.

Last month, Ford Motor Co. announced it was making the largest single investment in its history, $11.4 billion to build an electric truck assembly plant and battery plant in Tennessee and two battery plants in Kentucky. The plants are expected to create 11,000 jobs.

The battery plants will be jointly owned by Ford and South Korean battery maker SK Innovation.

Ford is calling its Tennessee complex Blue Oval City, essentially a 21st century version of its historic Dearborn Rouge complex, once the largest auto manufacturing operation in the world.

Rouge also was the site of the bloody Battle of the Overpass, which eventually led to the United Auto Workers organizing Ford. Over the years, the UAW negotiated contracts that provided its workers with solid middle-class incomes.

But Ford’s latest investments in the anti-union South represent an ominous threat to the UAW, which has been unable to organize any foreign automaker plants in the region. 

Signage at the Ford Motor Co. Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn touts the electric F-150 Lightning pickup truck, which will be produced at the factory. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

And Ford has not signaled a strong show of support for the UAW in representing its new workers, even though it has thousands of UAW-represented hourly workers at two Kentucky assembly plants.

Despite a generally amicable relationship with Ford, workers at its new factories in Tennessee and Kentucky will not automatically be represented by the UAW. Ford said it’s up to the workers at the new plants to decide if they want to be represented by a labor union.

In its national contract with the UAW, Ford has agreed to a so-called “card check” election in which workers the UAW are trying to organize sign cards saying they want to be represented. A plant becomes unionized if 51% of the workers sign up.

Kristin Dziczek, vice president of research at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said a such an election is likely to occur at Ford’s new factories. And she said the UAW might benefit from a more favorable view of labor unions in its effort to organize the new Ford workers. 

A recent Pew Research survey found a majority of Americans say unions have a positive effect on the country and that the decline of unions has hurt the economy.

Members of labor unions earned a median $180 a week more than nonunion workers last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The whole country has had a shift in their view of unions,” Dziczek said. “Public opinion [favoring unions] has risen sharply.”

But don’t be surprised if potent antiunion forces aggressively push Ford’s new electric vehicle and battery workers to reject the UAW.

Elected officials in Tennessee played prominent roles in convincing hourly workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga to twice defeat the UAW in organizing elections.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who called Ford’s electric vehicle investment “a watershed moment for Tennessee,” met directly with Volkswagen workers in advance of the 2019 election, urging them to reject unionization at the plant.

Volkswagen announced last year that Chattanooga would become its North American center for electric vehicle research and manufacturing.

In addition to dealing with union-busting tactics, the UAW faces an electric vehicle future that could have thousands fewer hourly jobs. That’s because electric vehicle powertrains have just a fraction of the parts contained in gasoline-powered cars.

And jobs at automakers’ battery plants essential to building electric vehicles could ultimately pay far less than vehicle assembly plant jobs.

Even some labor unions are skeptical that the Biden administration can produce millions of good-paying clean energy jobs.

Solar farms and wind turbines, for example, create a lot of construction jobs, but relatively few permanent jobs once they’re up and running. On the other hand, operating and maintaining a coal-fired power plant requires hundreds of highly skilled, well-paid workers.

Switching to clean energy sources for transportation and power generation is critical to halt the devastating effects of climate change.

But it’s not clear that clean energy jobs will produce the millions of middle-class union jobs the president is seeking.

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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.