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How the transition to electric vehicles factors into autoworkers union contract talks

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's crunch time in the talks between carmakers and the autoworkers union, and one complicating factor is the uncertainty over how the transition to electric vehicles will affect U.S. auto jobs. As NPR's Camila Domonoske reports, the switch comes with big costs and big government incentives.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: The negotiations aren't over whether or not to make electric vehicles. The UAW and the automakers agree that's happening. As UAW President Shawn Fain put it in a virtual rally this past weekend...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWN FAIN: We support a green economy. You know, we have to get behind this. We have to have a plan that we can live on.

DOMONOSKE: But he says this transition makes it more important that assembly line and battery workers get good pay and benefits.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAIN: If we don't secure this work and we don't secure it at a living standard, at Big Three standards, it's not going to be a good future for anyone.

DOMONOSKE: The union is asking for more than 40% raises, plus pensions, cost-of-living increases and job security. Auto companies say despite high profits, they cannot afford that. And one big reason why - the high cost of the electric transition.

ED KIM: There is some truth to this.

DOMONOSKE: Ed Kim, an analyst with AutoPacific, says, yeah, this is expensive for companies.

KIM: Yes, they've been very profitable. But they're also, at the same time, very eager to reinvest those profits into their EV product development.

DOMONOSKE: Auto companies have already pointed to the high cost of the EV transition to explain painful cuts. Take Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, which made $18 billion last year. It recently shut down a plant in Belvidere, Ill., citing the cost of switching to EVs. But the plant, which made the Jeep Cherokee, had seen layoffs even before this year. Patty Ellison's shift was cut in 2019.

PATTY ELLISON: It's pretty much turned my whole life upside down.

DOMONOSKE: Given the choice between a layoff or a transfer, she transferred to Michigan. Her husband still lives in Illinois. She spoke to me on a five-hour drive back to visit him. She gets home about once a month.

ELLISON: Anything but convenient.

DOMONOSKE: And when I asked her about Stellantis' explanation that they shut her old plant because of the cost of switching to EVs, she was skeptical.

ELLISON: It sounds like an excuse to me. If they're going to make electric vehicles, why can't we make them there in Belvidere?

DOMONOSKE: She'd be happy to build an EV. But there is one thing that does give Ellison pause.

ELLISON: They say it takes less people to build electric vehicles than it does a combustion vehicle.

DOMONOSKE: The union is concerned about this, too. On the other hand, new battery plants are popping up to power those new EVs with lots of jobs, and the UAW is working to organize them. Meanwhile, the federal government is pouring billions of dollars into electric vehicles, and the union has been pressuring the Biden administration to make sure that workers feel a benefit from that federal money, not just the corporations. Patty Ellison isn't sure what impact the shift to EVs will have on workers like her.

ELLISON: I don't know. It remains to be seen.

DOMONOSKE: But she says she's cautiously optimistic. One of the things her union is pushing for is the reopening of her old plant. And if that happens, analysts think it will probably be building EVs. Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY NUMAN SONG, "CARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.

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