'Union Joe' Biden Teamed Up With GM Chief To Push a Transition to Electric Vehicles. It Could Come Back to Haunt Them.

Painful EV transition pushed by White House is central to auto worker complaints

President Joe Biden and General Motors CEO Mary Barra (Getty Images).
September 19, 2023

President Joe Biden praised General Motors chief executive Mary Barra at a 2022 event, saying "we owe you big" for pushing the auto industry towards all-electric production over the next decade. The president’s kind words for Barra, and their decision to team up to back a transition to electric vehicles, could come back to haunt both parties amid a historic United Auto Workers strike.

The 150,000-member union has singled out Barra as an example of corporate greed at the "Big Three" automakers, a group that also includes Ford and Stellantis. UAW, which launched a strike at four auto plants last week, took a shot at Barra over her industry-leading $29 million annual salary. UAW president Shawn Fain declared "war" on the Big Three last month, citing the $200 million Barra has raked in over the past decade. The union wants a hefty increase to salaries and benefits for its members, along with assurances that jobs will be protected during the transition to EV production.

That dramatic shift will likely come at a steep cost in terms of auto industry jobs, and the transition to electric vehicles is at the center of the auto workers' complaints. According to one estimate, the transition to EV production will come at the cost of 117,000 auto jobs.

"The workers who are making engines and transmissions today, their jobs will be eliminated when we make a transition to electric vehicles," UAW research director Jennifer Kelly said earlier this year. And Jim Farley, the CEO of Ford, said last year he expects electric vehicles will require 40 percent less labor to produce than traditional automobiles.

The transition has already hit home for some auto workers. Stellantis, which owns Chrysler, laid off 1,200 employees at its Jeep plant in Illinois, citing "the electrification of the automotive market." Ford cut 3,000 white-collar jobs last year to slash costs to ease the transition to electric vehicles.

Biden and Barra's support for the EV push could come back to haunt them. Biden, who embraces his "Union Joe" moniker, has made Barra the poster child for his electric vehicle ambitions. He has praised Barra during at least 17 White House events and fundraisers, according to White House transcripts reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon.

"You electrified the entire automobile industry. You led, and it matters," Biden told Barra at one event. Biden has suggested he had a hand in Barra’s decision to put GM on an all-electric path. At fundraisers in Albuquerque and Salt Lake City last month, Biden recalled that after a meeting with Barra in 2021, she decided to commit GM to an all-electric fleet by 2035.

"I’m not saying it was because of me," Biden said to laughter at the Salt Lake City event.

Biden has fast-tracked the electric vehicle transition through billions of dollars in federal subsidies. The Build Back Better Act provides $7,500 in tax breaks for the purchase of electric cars, a major boon to GM and other automakers.

Biden’s alliance with Barra could alienate union voters, a core base of support in his reelection bid. The UAW has withheld an endorsement of Biden because of his hands-off response to the labor negotiations. Biden further rankled the union with his ill-fated prediction during a Labor Day speech that the strike would be averted. "It's time for politicians in this country to pick a side," said Fain, the UAW president.