Auto workers face an uncertain future in an age of electric cars

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) – When General Motors boldly announced its goal last month to build only battery-powered vehicles by 2035, it not only marked a break with more than a century of internal combustion engine manufacturing. It also clouded the future of 50,000 GM workers whose skills – and jobs – could become obsolete long before they thought.

The message was clear: As a greener American economy approaches, GM wants a factory workforce that will eventually build only zero-emission vehicles.

It won’t happen overnight. But the likelihood is growing that legions of auto workers who trained and worked for decades to build oil-fired machines will be doing quite a different job in the next decade, or they may be unemployed.

If the historic shift from internal combustion to electric power is as GM, Ford, and others increasingly envision, jobs that now involve manufacturing pistons, fuel injectors, and mufflers will be replaced by the assembly of ion battery packs. lithium, electric and heavy motors. – service wiring harnesses.

Many of those components are now made overseas. But President Joe Biden has made developing an electric vehicle supply chain in the United States a key part of his ambitious plan to create 1 million more jobs in the auto industry with electric vehicles.

Yet for workers at GM and other automakers, that future could be dangerous. The plants of the future more focused on the environment will need fewer workers, mainly because electric vehicles contain between 30% and 40% less moving parts than oil vehicles. Also, many of the good union jobs that have brought a solid middle-class lifestyle could shift to lower wages as automakers buy electric vehicle parts from supply companies or form separate companies to build components.

Those most vulnerable in the transition will be the roughly 100,000 people in the United States who work in plants that make transmissions and engines for gasoline and diesel vehicles.

They are people like Stuart Hill, one of roughly 1,500 workers at GM’s Toledo transmission plant in Ohio. At 38 years old and a GM employee for five years, Hill is still decades away from retirement. The future of the plant and his role in it worries him.

“It’s something that’s in the back of my mind,” Hill said. “Are they going to close it?”

He and others hope Toledo is among the places where GM will build the most parts for electric vehicles. If not, you would be willing to move to another plant to continue earning a solid salary; Senior workers represented by United Auto Workers are paid around $ 31 an hour.

Yet there is little certainty that automakers will need so many workers in the new era of electric vehicles. A United Auto Workers document from two years ago quotes Ford and Volkswagen executives as saying that electric vehicles will reduce work hours per vehicle by 30%.

“There are just fewer parts, so of course it stands to reason that there will be less manpower,” said Jeff Dokho, the UAW’s director of research.

“We’re at the beginning of that transition,” said Teddy DeWitt, an assistant professor of management at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies how jobs evolve over time. “It’s not just going to be in vehicle space.”

The number of industry jobs that will be lost in the transition is likely to run into the thousands, although no one knows for sure. And those losses will be offset, at least in part, by jobs created by a greener economy, from jobs related to building spare parts for electric vehicles and charging stations to jobs created by generating wind and solar electricity.

In fact, the most far-reaching change in manufacturing since commercial production of internal combustion vehicles began in 1886 will extend to farm equipment, heavy trucks, and even lawn mowers, snow plows, and brush cutters. The oil and gas industries could also suffer, as the weakening of the internal combustion engine reduces demand for oil.

At the century-old Toledo transmission plant, GM workers build sophisticated six-, eight-, nine- or 10-speed gearboxes. Eventually those parts will be replaced by much simpler single-speed transmissions for electric vehicles. Especially for workers at the bottom of the seniority list, GM’s plans for an “all-electric future” mean that eventually its services will likely no longer be needed.

“This is the time to define where we are going in the future,” said Tony Totty, president of the local UAW at the Toledo plant. “This is a time when we must ask ourselves in this country: What are we going to do for manufacturing? Is manufacturing dead in our country?

Those concerns were already in the air when Biden made a campaign stop in October at the Toledo union. Totty delivered a letter imploring the candidate “not to forget that people are doing the job today.”

Although all-electric vehicles now make up less than 2% of new vehicle sales in the United States, automakers face intense pressure to abandon internal combustion engines as part of a global push to combat climate change. California will ban sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. European countries are imposing bans or strict limits on pollution. Biden, as part of a push for green vehicles, pledged to build half a million charging stations and convert the federal fleet of 650,000 vehicles to batteries.

For the moment, however, American motorists have other ideas. They continue to spend record amounts on larger gasoline vehicles. With average pump prices near $ 2 a gallon, trucks and SUVs have replaced more efficient cars as the nation’s primary mode of transportation. In January, approximately three-quarters of new vehicle sales were trucks and SUVs. A decade ago, it was only half.

All that demand will keep Toledo in business for years. However, there is little doubt that the move to electricity is inexorable. Last year around 2.5 million electric vehicles were sold worldwide. IHS Markit expects that number to rise 70% this year alone. In December, there were 22 all-electric models for sale in the United States; expects that number to hit 30 this year. GM alone has pledged to invest $ 27 billion in 30 electric vehicle models worldwide by 2025.

The acceleration of the trend has increased anxiety even at plants that are now running on full blast to meet the demand for GM trucks.

“It definitely scares me,” said Tommy Wolikow, a worker at GM’s pickup truck assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, who has worked for GM for eight years. “I think eventually there is a good chance that I may not be able to withdraw from this plant.”

Depending on how quickly consumers adopt electric vehicles, Wolikow fears that older employees could take him out of work. Workers are already beginning to compete for jobs at three plants GM has designated as electric vehicle assembly sites, two in the Detroit area and one in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, GM says it needs the entire factory workforce as it rebuilds depleted inventory from a coronavirus-related factory closure last spring.

“We have to run our current core business smartly and robustly, because that will finally allow us to invest in this all-electric future,” said spokesman Dan Flores. “There is no way we can speculate on the future of any individual facility.”

Not all jobs related to internal combustion will disappear in the transition. GM excluded heavier trucks in its electric vehicle target. And some manufacturers will continue to make gas-electric hybrids, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of the Center for Auto Research, an industry think tank.

It’s unclear what will happen to workers at GM or other automakers who could be ousted in the transition. In the past, GM has protected some workers in downsizing periods. When an assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, closed in 2019, for example, laid off workers had the opportunity to relocate to other plants. And when GM closed factories and went bankrupt in 2009, laid off employees received early retirement and purchase packages.

The UAW says it sees the transformation to electricity as potentially less of a threat than a growth opportunity. Dokho suggested, for example, that the Biden administration could offer incentives to build more EV parts here.

“We are optimistic about making sure that there are jobs in the future and that jobs there now are protected,” he said.

Every major industrial transformation, DeWitt said, has tended to result in both job losses and new jobs. He noted, for example, that when Americans migrated from farms to cities after the Civil War, agricultural jobs declined. But cities were wired for electricity and jobs as electricians were created.

If automakers are willing, DeWitt said, most of their workers could retrain to move from gasoline vehicles to electrical parts and vehicle assembly.

“It seems to me unlikely that all that knowledge that we have accumulated in that workforce over the past 50 years is suddenly completely useless,” he said.

Protecting jobs is sure to be a main topic in the next round of UAW contract talks in 2023, and workers will especially want to preserve the highest paying jobs. GM and other automakers now see battery manufacturing as a lower-wage parts supply function.

The automaker is building a battery factory in Lordstown in a joint venture with South Korea’s LG Chem. Executive Director Mary Barra has said workers will be paid less than those at vehicle assembly plants, to keep costs closer to what competing automakers will pay.

Negotiating the 2023 contract could be even more contentious than two years ago, when a 40-day UAW strike cost GM $ 3.6 billion.

In fact, the reckoning between GM and the union may come ahead of schedule, said Karl Brauer, executive editor of the website. Automakers, he said, typically work on vehicles for five to seven years before they go on sale.

“You could argue that by 2028, they are not going to do more development on internal combustion engine vehicles,” he said. “Which is starting to look much closer than 2035.”


Krisher reported from Detroit.


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