AS PART OF ITS CONTRACT TALKS, the United Automobile Workers labor union is demanding that General Motors Co. reopen two plants in Lordstown, Ohio, and Hamtramck, Michigan, as electric car factories. The demand underscores the tensions inherent in the coming shift to a green economy, as workers recognize the potential benefits of that new economy but have reasonable fears that they won’t be the ones enjoying those benefits.
In order to reopen the Lordstown plant as an electric battery factory, as part of a co-venture with the electric truck startup Workhorse, GM is asking workers to take a pay cut equivalent to $6 an hour.
It’s unclear whether workers at GM will accept the deal.
Last year, to much fanfare, General Motors announced plans to introduce a mix of 20 new all-electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, making a dramatic play for the green vehicle market. But union workers on strike have good reason to worry whether they’ll materialize domestically: Apart from providing cheap labor, China has also invested heavily in green technology, while the U.S. has largely neglected to do so. And many workers are scared that if they don’t accept the GM offer, the company will simply produce electric vehicles in China.
”We are about to have a green car revolution, but unfortunately, it looks like GM will produce most of the cars overseas in China and Mexico,” said Dan Maloney, UAW Local 1097 president.
“I am second-generation GM employee and what this strike is about is keeping jobs right here in America,” said Toledo GM worker Christina Horvath-Badge.
“China is moving all in on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, they make no bones about it,” said Maloney. China is attempting to put a million hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles on the road by 2030, according to South China Morning Post. “We are making no effort to build the infrastructure and create the green jobs of the future.”
A LARGE COMPONENT of GM’s hydrogen fuel technology was developed in the Rochester area, in particular at the former site of GM fuel cell research and development center in Honeoye Falls.
“We helped produce hydrogen fuel cell vehicles right here,“ said Maloney. “We have over 3 million real world miles on GM hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that our UAW modelmarkers helped to build prototypes and bring to fruition here in Rochester and Honeoye Falls.”
Several hundred research jobs have already been moved out of Rochester to Michigan, and Maloney doesn’t think the city will benefit as GM expands its overseas production of electric cars.
Meanwhile, China is investing heavily in hydrogen fuel cell cars. With Wan Gang — a former Audi executive and a current Chinese minister of science and technology — leading the way, the Chinese government has strongly pushed electric vehicles as the future. Wan himself has been called the Chinese father of electric vehicles, and he has specifically called hydrogen fuel cells the technology of the future.
“We should look into establishing a hydrogen society,” said Wan in an interview with Bloomberg in June. “We need to move further toward fuel cells.”
Workers like Maloney say that the strike at GM is in part about making sure that the green new cars of future are made right in the U.S. For Maloney, whose union gave major concessions as part of the auto bailout in 2008-2009 to keep General Motors afloat, including wage cuts and the implementation of a two-tier wage system, it’s insulting to see the company abandon a workforce.
“It’s the easy move for them to shift work to where they can abuse workers in foreign countries in Asia and in Mexico,” Maloney said.
The shift to producing green cars in China is about more than just cheap labor. Given pushes in China such as Wan’s, as well as Chinese interest more generally, and GM’s considerable interest in Chinese market share — China is GM’s largest market — it is not at all unreasonable to think that research, development, and production of hydrogen fuel cells or the vehicles they propel will be moved from the United States to China. Almost all GM vehicles sold in China are made in China.
Outsourcing has played heavily in the debate over the strike at General Motors. With American taxpayers investing $50 billion to bail out GM while unions have taken major concessions to keep the company afloat, many GM workers are outraged that the automotive company is moving its production overseas. UAW Local 1005 Chair Al Tiller, of Parma, Ohio’s GM plant, said that workers were furious watching the green jobs flee. “The people are still here. It’s just the people are here with no jobs,” he said. “The people are still here, but here with no jobs, so what are we gonna do when everything is overseas?”
“There’s a lot to build to put this economy on an ecologically sustainable footing and a lot of people need work,” said University of Rhode Island environmental and labor historian Erik Loomis. “If environmentalists want to get working-class support, they need to provide union jobs to make that happen. That very much includes in producing hydrogen fuel cells.”
Determining what percentage of production of any given vehicle sold to U.S. consumers is actually “American-made” is increasingly difficult as auto parts are often made overseas and then assembled in the U.S. It isn’t just about final assembly, though that obviously plays a significant part. In attempting to account for all of the parts suppliers, casing stampers, and even white-collar marketing and development, Cars.com produced a “American-Made” list in 2018 which had more Honda vehicle models on it than GM models. Only two GM models made the cut as “most American”: the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt (made in Detroit, Michigan) and the Chevrolet Corvette (made in Bowling Green, Kentucky).
On the other end of the scale is the Buick Envision, GM’s midsize crossover. The SUV is built in China by the Chinese co-venture Shanghai GM. GM has even applied for a tariff waiver on this model, arguing that because the Envision is extremely popular in China and most Envisions are sold there, it is not feasible to make the vehicle in the United States. GM has imported between 30,000 to 40,000 Envisions to the U.S. in the past two years — a significant number of domestic car sales with the vehicles not being made stateside.
GM appears to have few plans to build its crossovers in North America, with only the Enclave perhaps being built in Lansing, Michigan. All other models are currently expected to be built in Chinese plants, according to research and reporting by the trade publication GM Authority. Given that these models will likely include hybrid or complete electric fuel cell technology, based on trends in China and around the world, GM could decide to make the fuel cells in Chinese rather than American plants.
In the global automotive industry, Japan leads in hydrogen fuel cell technology, which is why United States car manufacturers have partnered with Japanese automakers, such as GM’s $85 million joint venture with Honda.
However, China’s adoption of hydrogen fuel technology is growing rapidly due to national and local subsidies, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Energy. The report includes striking details, like the 100 billion Chinese yuan (or roughly $14.1 billion) investment increase in just two years or the doubling of firms involved in hydrogen fuel cells approximately every five years.
“That means the government will commit resources to developing such vehicles,” Wan told Bloomberg. “While China plans to phase out the long-time subsidy program for the maturing EV industry next year, the government funding for fuel cell vehicles may stay in place to some extent.”
In comparison, the U.S. lags behind. According to another Energy Department report, cumulative state funding was only $180 million over the previous decade in 2018, and the state of California had announced an additional $235 million to be invested in electric vehicles that same year.
For workers to get on board with a Green New Deal, union advocates say something must be done to ensure that these jobs are in the U.S.
“As the U.S. transitions out of the 20th century industrial economy, we have to create jobs for working-class people here in the United States,” said Erik Loomis, the labor historian. “Moving green energy production overseas significantly damages the future of American communities that are already decimated by the loss of factory jobs. I know that GM is planning to have some battery production in the U.S. and that’s a positive step, but it isn’t nearly enough to put people to work.”