Unions, Auto Production, & Biden

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Joe Biden is a strong supporter of labor unions, and they, in turn, are strong supporters of him. That mutual embrace has led directly to a provision in a proposed piece of legislation that would boost the federal EV tax credit by $2500 for cars manufactured by US workers and an additional $2500 if those workers are members of a labor union like the UAW.

Keep in mind this legislation is just beginning its journey through the convoluted legislative process. What the final result will be is anyone’s guess. Amendments will be made. Items will be deleted or substantially modified. One thing to keep in mind is that, at present, there is no provision that would expand the tax credit to include manufacturers who have already sold more than 200,000 qualifying electric vehicles in the US.

Tesla seems to have no political drag with the current administration, but General Motors certainly does. There is no way The General wants to see crosstown rivals Ford and Chrysler get the benefit of government subsidies when it cannot. Expect some changes to that 200,000 limitation before the final bill is passed.

While President Biden is giving a bear hug to unions in the US, what does that mean for union workers outside the country who build vehicles for the American market? For instance, in 2019, General Motors sold 906,000 full size Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks. 339,000 of them were manufactured at the company’s Silao factory in the Mexican state of Guantanamo. That’s where Mari, who declines to give her last name, takes home $115.63 after working at the factory for more than a decade. She tells Autoweek she often works a second job to make ends meet.

The workers at the Silao factory are represented by the Miguel Trujillo Lopez union, but many feel it is far too cozy with management and does not represent their interests aggressively enough. In April, there was a vote to decertify the union, which the union won. But there were numerous allegations of irregularities in the vote and after pressure from the US, a new election was scheduled.

There is a provision in the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) that replaced NAFTA which aims to foster stronger unions and boost wages in Mexico, partly to reduce incentives for U.S. companies to move jobs south of the border. This is the first time the US has asserted its right to question the fairness of an election under the new agreement. “Now, with the new treaty, I think we can improve our work conditions,” Mari says.

GM has a powerful incentive to see the second vote is conducted fairly. Under USMCA, the company could face a 25% import tariff if election skullduggery is proven, wiping out any economic advantage of building trucks in Mexico in the first place. This week, 5,876 GM employees cast ballots in the new election. 3,214 voted to reject the union and the current union contract, while 2,623 voted to keep the union and the contract.

What’s Next?

So, where do the workers at the Silao factory go from here? No one knows for sure. There is no other labor union waiting in the wings hoping to represent them (although there may be soon). The workers may decide to form their own union.

What is certain is that paying industrial workers with 10 years of seniority less than $120 a week is a form of economic terrorism that has no place in an ethical world. Most Americans have no idea where their shiny new car or truck is made and couldn’t care less. Working conditions for factory workers — whether for GM, Apple, Walmart, or Amazon — are something they prefer to know nothing about.

Under current trade rules, whether trucks are manufactured in Silao, Mexico, or Oshawa, Canada, they are considered American made. But if they are “American made,” shouldn’t the workers who assemble them be entitled to pay and benefits equivalent to what US union workers get? Joe Biden is all about social justice, but does social justice end at the border?

There is something obnoxious about people driving gargantuan pickup trucks, their chests swelled with pride about how great it is to be an American, while the people who actually built those gorgeous gasmobile are struggling to feed their families. Compassion for others is in critically short supply these days, with governors like Ron DeathSentence happy to see their constituents get sick and die if it means they can score a few political points.

General Motors and other manufacturers who have fled to Mexico so they can pay people as little as possible should be ashamed at how they have exploited their foreign labor forces. (For more on this topic, please see No Logo by Naomi Klein.) Commerce is a collaborative effort. The capitalists should not reap all the rewards and neither should the workers. A balance is needed for the system to operate properly.

Many of the products Americans buy rely on people who work tirelessly, often at grave risk of injury or death, to bring us the goods we so casually consume and discard. Perhaps what happened in Silao this week will have ripple effects that travel far beyond the state of Guantanamo.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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