Weekend Reads: Unionization and the Rising Tide of Electric Vehicles

by Kevin Schofield

This weekend’s long read delves into the rising tide of electric vehicles from the perspective of a major stakeholder: the United Auto Workers union (UAW).

In late 2019 the UAW’s research department produced a report laying out the major trends it saw that are leading a shift from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric drivetrain ones. The most significant trend, of course, is climate change and the need for all of us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the UAW’s research, transportation accounts for 29% of U.S. emissions, the largest share of any source (narrowly beating electricity generation). Switching to all electric vehicles would eliminate those direct greenhouse gas emissions, though there would still be some from the manufacturing process and from generating the electricity to power the cars until those processes could be fully converted off fossil fuels. Bloomberg predicts that by 2040, as much as 55% of annual global “light duty” vehicle sales will be electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids.

For that to happen, though, the cost of an electric vehicle will need to come down. The UAW report cites projections that by 2027 electric vehicle costs will be at parity with internal combustion vehicles. The largest single factor in that is the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power the cars — which also create their own environmental and ethical issues tied to the mining of lithium and cobalt. This is a complex ecosystem, to be sure.

Naturally, one of UAW’s chief concerns is what this will mean for U.S. jobs, and particularly manufacturing jobs that are highly concentrated in “rust belt” states. They anticipate competition from China — which has an early lead particularly in battery manufacturing — and from Europe, which is also embracing the switch to electric vehicles and has its own auto industry. But the report also points out that there will be plenty of infrastructure jobs too as the nation builds out a new network of charging stations.

The report is an interesting look at how a 20th-century powerhouse is trying to reinvent itself in a new century with a different set of economic and regulatory forces at play.

Taking the high road: strategies for a fair EV future

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Insight, a website providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears from time to time on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.

The featured image is attributed to JCT 600 under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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