Bill McKibben On Unions, Tesla, & Elon Musk — CleanTechnica Interview

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In the second part of my two-part interview with Bill McKibben, we spent a lot of time talking about Elon Musk, Tesla, and social trust. That included getting into the topic of unions, the UAW itself, cryptocurrency, and whether or not people with nefarious — or at least selfish and greedy — motives have intentionally split the “climate solutions community.” This is surely a topic I will come back to repeatedly, and I’m almost considering writing a book on it. It was good to get into a bit of a discussion with someone as notable, influential, and intelligent as Bill McKibben about these matters, but it also opened my eyes to how big of a challenge we face with this ongoing story. As with any complicated and controversial conversation, I cannot say that I got to adequately frame or respond to every big matter mentioned here. I will attempt to address a few things in the text below better than I could on the call. (Listen to part one of the interview, or read the summary, here: “Bill McKibben On Climate Crisis, Climate Grief, Climate Action, & US Climate Policy — CleanTechnica Interview.”)

Note that the following is not a summary of the discussion, which I found very good and useful. It is simply extra commentary to add context to a few topics.

Unions & Tesla

The beginning of this part of the interview, which focused on the complicated relationship between Elon Musk and some very politically engaged progressives, required a somewhat long intro/setup. I believe this is the most complicated matter around “the story of Elon Musk” in the past few years, and it mostly regards Tesla. It’s complicated because it’s not just one topic or one story; it’s not a clear “this side is good, and this side is bad” case; and one round builds on another in a combative cultural and political narrative that I think is rooted in misunderstandings and poor communication. In fact, as I noted at some point in our conversation, watching this play out for the past few years has reminded me of watching a relationship fall apart in which one communication mistake, misunderstanding, or insensitivity after another leads to a deeper and deeper split.

I won’t get into many of the phases of this, but the thing that I’ve always wondered about is the roots of the Tesla unionization effort that was prominent a few years ago. How much of it was nefarious versus good intentioned, and was there a clear concerted effort to “split the community” with this “battle?” Was the original intent to actually take Tesla down (something that was very possible and nearly happened in 2018)? What is definitely clear, though, is that large portions of the political left have their criticism or even animus for Elon Musk rooted in this story. (Note: I am strongly a member of the “political left” and would advise against too broad a brush on how “the left” has responded overall to Tesla and Elon Musk, especially on the matteis of unionization and factory policies.)

To conclude this long setup, I think it’s important to clearly state the core points of view that the two sides hold:

  • Elon Musk and many of his & Tesla’s supporters believe that unionization efforts at Tesla have been driven by the UAW and are not good intentioned at all but simply a way to stifle Tesla’s growth and progress while lining the pockets of corrupt union executives. Taking it further, there’s a concern among many that the UAW would like to get inside the doors of Tesla in order to harm it for the benefit of Ford, GM, and Stellantis.
  • Many on the left, on the other hand, see the story as Tesla workers trying to unionize in order to get paid better wages and improved working conditions. Many also see Elon Musk’s responses as illegal union busting stimulated by selfish motives and lack of concern for others.

Again, I am not making a judgement call on any of those opinions, just summarizing what I see as the core perceptions of each side. I do not know who started the unionization efforts and why, and I don’t want to jump to any conclusions.

On the matter of the UAW, it is true that leaders of the UAW have been busted in recent years for corruption. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that unions in general don’t work hard on the part of the workers they represent, or that the UAW is just trying to swindle Elon Musk and Tesla out of money at the expense of progress. Also, simple logic points out that many employees, especially factory workers, do not have much bargaining power individually, and that they could benefit from shared bargaining. One reader responding to the article linked above explained it well in a comment:

“Missing from individualist discussions of the pros and cons of unions is an understanding of institutional power. When unions were stronger and more prevalent in the workforce, workers in all sectors — union and non union — did better. To move to a more economically just world, we need institutions that push that move. Even though union bosses, like politicians and corporate executives, can be corrupt, unions remain an institution that pushes for economic justice.”

For more on this topic, listen to Bill McKibben talk about it in the podcast above.

Myths About Tesla

There were a couple of things in that portion of the conversation that were not accurate, but I didn’t want to derail the core discussion to correct them. However, I feel an obligation to do so here.

First of all, McKibben noted that $10 billion from the government saved Tesla at some point. I think this was a mixup based on two different stories. I think he was partly referencing the $465 million Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) federal government loan Tesla received in 2010 and then paid back 9 years early. (Note that Ford got a nearly $6 billion loan under this program that it seems to have never paid back, while GM had just been bailed out to the tune of $50.35 billion — both far higher governmental costs than Tesla’s short-term $0.465 billion loan.) I think he was also referencing some very misleading, misguided articles about “Tesla subsidies” that greatly exaggerate the extent to which Tesla has been supported by subsidies of any sort. I tried to address that matter in this article.

McKibben also said, “One punchline of this story is: the Chinese are figuring out how to build electric cars faster, cheaper, and in bigger quantity, and without having outsized cartoon characters at the helm of the whole operation.” I’m not sure where some of these statements originated. Tesla is by far the top producer/seller of electric vehicles globally, and its models even top the charts in China. Furthermore, Tesla has been a clear inspiration for some of China’s EV policies — and the extent of its policies.

Tesla has been building cars faster, cheaper, and in bigger quantity in China. Part of that, of course, is due to different labor norms there, which would bring us back to the topic I focused on at the start of this article. The big positive story from China on EVs is simply that the Chinese government mandates them to some extent and strongly supports them on the demand-stimulus side, resulting in EV market share of overall auto sales that is now above 10%, as well as China representing about 50% of the global EV market. But that’s all policy stuff, not business stuff. On the business front, Tesla is the clear leader in China, and some competing automaker executives aren’t even shy about admitting it.

A third point McKibben made that I didn’t want to spend time on during the conversation but which I feel I must address here is the statement that it’s inevitable Tesla will be unionized via the UAW at some point — because all other automakers end up unionizing. Perhaps he meant that in their home countries all automakers are unionized to some extent, but it’s worth remembering that several automakers have large factories in the USA (BMW, Nissan, Honda, Toyota, etc.) and are not affiliated with any unions (including the UAW) in our country. It certainly doesn’t seem to be inevitable that Tesla workers would ever decide to unionize and join the UAW. In fact, I’d bet against it happening. Legally, Musk and other executives at Tesla are not allowed to “union bust” and prevent worker efforts to do that. Some critics claim that they find ways to do so anyway, but supporters of how things are organized at the moment argue that Tesla workers genuinely don’t want to get involved with the UAW, think unionization would slow innovation and hurt them personally, and are happy with their current setup. This is one of the top issues I feel like I don’t have adequate insight into when it comes to Tesla, and I have thought seriously for a while about trying to put in hardcore effort to try to find answers on the ground. At the moment, though, all I can say is that I’ve seen strong arguments on both sides and all we know so far is that there’s never been a strong unionization movement inside Tesla.

Wealth Inequality in Modern Society

We barely touched on the matter of wealth inequality in the US, but it did come up. That is an enormous topic that is well beyond the scope of this conversation or article. I think it’s fair to say that most people can see that we have a problem when tens of millions of Americans struggle to get adequate food or housing while Elon Musk is worth $220 billion (you could make 220,000 millionaires out of Musk if you could split him into 220,000 people). We have serious problems with politics, policy, and economics in the United States. However, close followers of Tesla also know that pretty much all of Elon Musk’s net worth is in shares of companies he founded and got off the ground, so saying he needs to pay more taxes on his extreme wealth means saying that he has to sell a lot of shares of his companies to pay taxes on his “paper gains” (and consider for a moment that it’s just other super wealthy people and companies that are going to buy those shares). Selling a lot of shares of Tesla, meanwhile, would likely lead to the stock going down, which could drive down Musk’s wealth far beyond the taxes he’d pay while also potentially reducing his long-term influence over the company. Meanwhile, though, Musk can basically get low-interest bank loans for more money than he’d ever be able to spend on himself because of his high net worth — and that’s what he does for money. In other words, the whole system is complicated.

In my opinion, outside of the climate crisis, the biggest problem in US society is that our governmental investment in the bulk of our people is completely anemic. We don’t provide a good enough social safety net and we have enormous problems with poor physical health, unfathomable mental health challenges across society, massive drug addiction, and very limited opportunity for a decent quality of life and “upward mobility.” We also have unsatisfactory education systems and infrastructure. To solve those problems would require a variety of solutions that we seem incapable of getting through any realistically possible Congress — a 21st century New Deal, cuts in defense spending, decent IRS enforcement for tax cheats, policies focused on investing in our kids and investing in our future, getting back to the corporate tax rates of our economic prime as a country, and greater taxes on luxury goods and non-basic spending across society. Oh yeah, plus a carbon pricing system that discourages pollution while raising funding for things we want.

Alas, the conversation could not get into all of those topics and the discussion about how unbelievably wealthy Elon Musk is and how that relates to our broken economic system was far too shallow, simplistic, and probably useless for achieving the things that both McKibben and I would like to see.

Again, continuing my core theme in this discussion: I expressed that my concern is that infighting (perhaps purposefully stimulated) among the most climate-concerned and active in our society is slowing cleantech progress and collaboration that is so critical to our future as a society and as a species. McKibben humorously summarized, “In the Twitter age, we’re all good at controversy.”

That’s quite a lot to discuss and we’re only halfway through this second half of the podcast. I’ll have to return to this podcast episode soon to get into the remaining topics of cryptocurrency, social trust, and a few actual cleantech topics. In the meantime, you can listen via the SoundCloud embed above, the Spotify embed below, or on your favorite podcast network if it’s not one of those.

You can subscribe and listen to CleanTech Talk on: AnchorApple Podcasts/iTunesBreakerGoogle Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket, Podbean, Radio Public, SoundCloud, Spotify, or Stitcher.

See part one of the Bill McKibben interview here: “Bill McKibben On Climate Crisis, Climate Grief, Climate Action, & US Climate Policy — CleanTechnica Interview.”

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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