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The fight over electric vehicles is at the center of the auto strike.

The fight between Detroit carmakers and the United Auto Workers union, which escalated Friday with targeted strikes at three locations, is unfolding amid a once-in-a-century technological upheaval that poses huge risks for both companies and the union. Produces.

The strike comes as traditional automakers invest billions to develop electric vehicles, while still making most of their money from gasoline-powered cars. The negotiations will likely determine the balance of power between workers and management for years to come. This makes the strike as much a fight for the future of the industry as it is about wages, benefits and working conditions.

Established carmakers – General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis, which owns Chrysler, Jeep and RAM – are trying to defend their profits and their place in the market in the face of stiff competition from Tesla and foreign automakers. Some executives and analysts have described what is happening in the industry as the biggest technological change since Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line at the beginning of the 20th century.

About 13,000 UAW workers walked off the job Friday at three plants in Ohio, Michigan and Missouri after three separate negotiations between unions and companies failed to reach an agreement before a Thursday deadline. Wages are one of the biggest hurdles: The union is demanding a 40 percent pay increase over four years, but automakers have offered about half that increase.

But the conversation is about more than salary. As manufacturing shifts from internal combustion engines to batteries, workers are trying to protect jobs. Because they have fewer parts, electric cars can be built with fewer workers than gasoline vehicles. A favorable outcome for the UAW would also give the union a strong calling card as some hope it attempts to organize workers at other non-union carmakers like Tesla and Hyundai, which have a huge new plant in Georgia. Plans to manufacture electric vehicles at the factory. ,

“The transition to EVs is dominating every part of this discussion,” said John Kesa, senior managing director at investment firm Guggenheim Partners, who previously headed strategy at Ford Motor.

“It’s unspoken,” Mr. Kesa said. “But really, it’s all about preparing the union to play a central role in the new electric industry.”

Under pressure from government officials and changing consumer demand, Ford, GM and Stellantis are investing billions to retool their vast operations to manufacture electric vehicles, which are critical to addressing climate change. But they are making little profit on those vehicles, while Tesla, which dominates electric car sales, is profitable and growing rapidly.

Ford said in July that its electric vehicle business would suffer a loss of $4.5 billion this year. If the union gets all the increases in pay, pensions and other benefits it is asking for, its workers’ total compensation would be twice that of Tesla workers, the company said.

The union’s demands will force Ford to end its investment in electric vehicles, the company’s Chief Executive Jim Farley said in an interview Friday. “We really want to have a conversation about a sustainable future,” he said, “not one that forces us to choose between going out of business and rewarding our workers.”

For workers, the biggest concern is that electric vehicles have far fewer parts than gasoline models and will make many jobs obsolete. Plants that make mufflers, catalytic converters, fuel injectors and other components that electric cars don’t need will have to be overhauled or closed.

Many new battery and electric vehicle factories are opening and may provide employment to workers from closed plants. But automakers are building most aggressively in the South, where labor laws are tilted against union organizers, rather than in the Midwest, where the UAW has greater influence. One of the union’s demands is that workers at the new factories be covered under the automakers’ national labor contracts – a demand that the automakers have said they cannot meet because those plants are owned by joint ventures. . The union also wants to regain the right to strike to shut down the plant.

Madeline Janis said, “We are at the beginning of another industrial revolution and going the same way we went in the last industrial revolution – lots of profit and misery for the few and no good jobs for the many. ” Executive director of Jobs to Move America, an advocacy group that works closely with the UAW and other unions.

“The UAW is really taking a stand for communities across the country to make sure this change benefits everyone,” Ms. Janis said.

Automakers have been making record profits over the past decade, but they can’t afford to waste downtime in the race to compete with Tesla and foreign automakers.

All three companies are already struggling to grow their electric vehicle businesses. A new GM battery factory in Ohio has been slow to produce batteries, delaying electric versions of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup and other vehicles. Ford had to suspend production of its electric F-150 Lightning in February this year after a battery caught fire in one of the pickups parked near the factory for quality checking. And Stellantis won’t start selling any fully electric vehicles in the United States until next year.

Those problems and Tesla’s rising sales could put the union in a stronger position to win a good deal.

On Thursday, GM offered 20 percent pay increases over four years, signaling that the automaker is willing to go much further than before. That’s half of what the union is demanding but far more than workers have received in recent contracts. President Biden on Friday strongly supported the union In remarks at the White House. administration is imposing billions And he doesn’t want the strike to delay programs to promote electric vehicles, a centerpiece of his climate policy.

Despite the money automakers have made in recent years, their executives express deep unease about the growth of electric vehicles, which have accounted for 7 percent of the U.S. new car market so far this year and have seen sales of one million. On its way to cross. this year. Managers are well aware that traditional companies like theirs have a poor track record of maintaining dominance following major changes in technology. See how Apple sidelined Nokia and Motorola when cell phones became smartphones.

Auto company executives and most industry analysts underestimate how quickly electric vehicles will become popular and can’t confidently predict how sales, which have been volatile recently, will grow in the future. “I don’t think anyone can completely predict what the adoption will be,” General Motors Chief Executive Mary T. Barra said in an interview with The New York Times last month.

Speaking to “CBS Mornings” on Friday, Ms. Barra said excessive wage increases would reduce GM’s ability to continue producing vehicles with internal combustion engines while simultaneously developing electric vehicles. “This is a turning point where it is very important to invest,” he said.

Still, unions and their supporters are unlikely to express much sympathy toward auto executives. Ms. Barra and the leaders of Ford (Jim Farley) and Stellantis (Carlos Tavares) have received millions of dollars in compensation packages in recent years. Shareholders of companies have been rewarded with dividends and share buybacks.

“Unions won’t have a lot of patience for sob stories,” said Carl Brauer, executive analyst at online marketplace

Adjusted for inflation, wages for auto workers in the United States have declined 19 percent since 2008, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning research group.

Also, union officials are aware of the changes in the industry and have said they do not want to hinder GM, Ford and Stellantis as the companies try to regain ground lost from Tesla, which has aggressively pushed its union. Efforts to make it have been opposed. factory. Detroit carmakers also face start-ups like Rivian, which makes electric pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles in Illinois, as well as foreign-owned rivals Mercedes-Benz and others. toyotaWhose American factories, mostly in the South, are not unionized.

“That’s the biggest challenge here,” Mr. Brauer said, “trying to commit to a long-term contract in an industry that is very uncertain and unpredictable over the next five years.”

Union supporters say it would be wrong to blame workers if traditional carmakers can’t compete with Tesla and other rivals.

“If you look at the cost of making an EV, labor is a very small part of the equation. Batteries are at a premium,” said Ms. Janice of Jobs to Move America. “The idea that the UAW is going to drive Ford, GM and Stellantis out of the market is not true.”

But other analysts said a longer work stoppage could help Tesla and foreign automakers gain an edge over GM, Ford and Stellantis.

“If something happens that disrupts their business, will that give a boost to emerging electric vehicle manufacturers?” said Steve Patton, who works with auto companies overseas for the consulting firm EY. “Who will benefit if the strike drags on?”

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