How Biden’s New Clean Air Rules Helps UAW Drive at VW

Chattanooga Officials threaten to take away tax incentives if they unionize (Robin Rudd/Chattanooga Times Free Press)

The following piece is cross-posted from Dave Dayen, Executive Editor of the American Prospect 

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized new tailpipe emissions rules for U.S. cars, the biggest Biden administration climate rule that had not yet been completed. While the rules are a bit loosened from last year’s initial proposal, giving car companies more time to reduce emissions, it still has the same overall outcome of cutting carbon pollution from vehicle transportation in half by 2032. The rules also limit other noxious pollutants from internal combustion engines, like soot and nitrogen oxide.

While the rules are formally “technology-neutral,” meaning that the emissions targets can be reached in any way the car companies see fit, in order to hit those numbers, companies will almost certainly have to sell more vehicles powered by electricity, either in whole or in part (like with hybrids or plug-in hybrids). The EPA says that as much as 56 percent of new auto sales could consist of EVs in the 2030 to 2032 model years, if not more.

There are other rules coming soon, including the Department of Transportation’s fuel economy standards and a separate EPA rule for heavy trucks. But this rule limiting tailpipe emissions is a big deal for the climate, and for the public health of people who breathe in tailpipe emissions and suffer accordingly.

It just might also be a major win for American labor.

That’s because the United Auto Workers’ first attempt in its bold strategy to organize non-union U.S. auto plants is at a Volkswagen facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This plant’s primary output is currently Volkswagen’s only electric vehicle in the U.S., and even the weaker timelines in the new rules make it close to impossible to close that plant or shift EV production elsewhere. That robs UAW antagonists of a critical and oft-deployed argument against union drives: that the facility would lose business or have to close if the unionization is successful.

The UAW, which pushed for a slower phase-in last year, seemed pleased with the final version. In a statement, the union said that “the EPA has created a more feasible emissions rule” that “provid[es] a path forward for automakers to implement the full range of automotive technologies to reduce emissions … We reject the fearmongering that says tackling the climate crisis must come at the cost of union jobs.” In fact, in this case, it’s going to facilitate those union jobs.

This week, the UAW announced that they have filed for a union election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, with a bargaining unit of 4,300 hourly employees. The plant has manufactured the ID.4, an all-electric compact SUV, since 2022. It’s the company’s flagship EV, which it has called “a new chapter for Volkswagen in America.”

The ID.4 is an American-produced vehicle, eligible under the Inflation Reduction Act’s domestic-sourcing rules for the $7,500 EV consumer rebate. The steel, interior parts, electronic components, and battery are all made in America. More important for Volkswagen, the supply chain is already set up.

“There’s no way they can shut that factory down,” said Corey Cantor, senior associate of electric vehicles at BloombergNEF. He points out that the ID.4 represented 11.5 percent of all Volkswagen sales in the U.S. Eliminating the model would have been bad for business; with the tailpipe rules coming into force in 2027, it would now put VW out of compliance. Even John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the industry’s lead trade group, said in reaction to the new EPA rules, “The future is electric.”

Shifting ID.4 production elsewhere would be just as difficult. The facility in Chattanooga has a battery assembly plant and a battery engineering lab on site. The company announced Chattanooga as its EV hub in 2019, and didn’t start making EVs there until three years later. With the tailpipe rule just a few years away, Volkswagen doesn’t have the time to rejigger its supply chain in the event of a successful union drive.

The Prospect wrote about the UAW’s Volkswagen campaign last month, noting that in prior efforts at the plant going back to 2014, state political officials, outside corporate front groups, and anti-union plant managers raised the possibility of the plant closing if workers voted for collective bargaining. Managers shared articles about a 1988 VW closure in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, that was blamed on UAW activity. (Low sales actually led to that shuttering.)

This time around, organizers are preparing to rebut that claim, explaining that Volkswagen has already committed to increasing production at the plant. Now they have another point to make: The new EPA rules make closing the plant a virtual impossibility. “They will not do all this preparation just to pick up and leave,” Yolanda Peoples, who works on the engine assembly line, told the Prospect last month.

Yes, it’s likely that conservative groups will challenge the EPA rule, and if Republicans gain power next year, they’ll likely try to overturn it. But California hardening its tailpipe emissions rules will make this attempted sabotage difficult, since the nation’s largest state can set its own standards by law, which many other states follow. An auto industry looking for certainty and uniformity typically adheres to them. And even if that weren’t the case, the Chattanooga election will happen long before the right can do anything about the EPA’s rules.

Robbed of the biggest tool to frighten workers, opponents of the union will have to fend off a more diverse workforce than the plant previously had from voting to assert their rights. The results in two previous votes of the VW plant were very close; a virtual guarantee that the plant will continue to thrive regardless of union status could be enough to put it over the top.

That’s important for VW workers, but also for the rest of the industry. A breakthrough in the South will have resonance across other factories that the UAW is trying to organize. That includes the Mercedes facility in Vance, Alabama, where half the workers have signed union cards, and the Alabama Hyundai and Missouri Toyota plants, where more than 30 percent have signed cards. The union has pledged $40 million toward organizing these and several other auto and battery plants, mostly in the South, over the next two years. That’s the largest funding for a union organizing drive, relative to the number of workers it’s targeting, in U.S. history.

Hyundai has banked on an electric-vehicle strategy. While its EVs are made in Korea now, it’s currently building an EV plant in Georgia. All of these companies, if they want to stay in compliance and on the road in the U.S., must bring EV production here. And if VW leads the way with a unionized EV plant, it will help make the case for others to follow.

Anti-union forces know that the Volkswagen election is critical to whether the auto sector will see a wave of unionization. “The left wants Tennessee so bad, because if they get us, the Southeast falls, and it’s game over for the republic,” Tennessee state Rep. Scott Cepicky (R) said last year in a private meeting.

And breakthrough unionizing may not just stay with the auto sector. Courage is contagious. It could break the seal on other workplaces in the South, and on industrial unionization efforts like the Teamsters’ drive at Amazon. It could show to every union in America that investing in organizing can yield results. As my colleague Harold Meyerson has noted, the UAW’s efforts challenge the labor status quo, which has devalued organizing in favor of protecting the members they still have. U.S. labor law still presents hurdles to this organizing, but the UAW has a lot going in its favor, and the EPA rules add one more factor. That could help spur a snowball effect for workers everywhere.

Transportation pushes more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other sector. The EPA rules are one critical way to address that. But the boost it gives to create good, union-paying jobs helps strengthen the coalition for the energy transition. That may be just as critical a legacy of the effort.

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]