Biden’s Tariffs on China: A Unionist Response – Part 2

International solidarity, not corporate protectionism, key to union drives, jobs, and higher wages and benefits

China has developed sodium ion batteries to replace lithium ions which are more expensive and much less available
China has developed sodium ion batteries to replace lithium ions which are more expensive and much less available.

By Chris Fry

Part 1 discussed how Biden has undermined his own publicized campaign to fight global warming by imposing huge tariff increases on China. Part 2 explores how the billionaire ruling class, patrons to both major political parties, is pressuring the government to suppress the re-awakening union movement, to “nip it in the bud” before it threatens its huge profits. So, it is now necessary for the labor movement to create its own independent viewpoint and stance of national and international government policies, including Biden’s escalation of Trump’s anti-China tariffs on EVs, batteries and other green energy products.

On May 16, Biden’s White House issued a statement quoting union leaders from the AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers, the Teamsters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Auto Workers all applauding Biden’s anti-China tariffs. Most of those union leaders echoed the business leaders who were also on the White House statement, commending Biden for “defending American industries” from Chinese “overcapacity” in production of electric vehicles (ERVs) and their batteries.

Even the supposed environmental group Sierra Club was quoted as supporting Biden’s tariffs, despite gasoline-powered vehicles currently producing some 25% of carbon emissions that are accelerating global warming.

But the UAW, under the leadership of Shawn Fain, struck a markedly different tone in its statement supporting the tariffs. There was no defense of American industry. Instead, it condemns “corporate greed” that is “pitting worker against worker, pushing wages lower and lower”:

“The UAW applauds today’s decisive action from the White House on ensuring that the transition to electric vehicles is a just transition. We have warned for many months that, left to the forces of corporate greed, the EV future was threatened by a race to the bottom, from China to Mexico to right here in the United States. Making sure that major corporations have to pay a price for pitting worker against worker, pushing wages lower and lower, is a key part of a pro-worker trade policy. America’s autoworkers, our families, and working-class communities across this country want a trade policy that puts workers first. Today’s announcement is a major step in the right direction.”

UAW reaches a contract agreement for battery workers.

The historic UAW “Stand Up” 2023 contract, won after a militant strike of all three of the “Big 3” companies (General Motors, Ford and Stellantis), placed their electric vehicle and battery factories under the national contract. This also applies to all jointly owned facilities with other companies, typically with foreign ones.

On June 10, the union reached a tentative agreement covering 1600 workers at the Ultium Cells plant in Lordstown, Ohio, a joint venture between General Motors and a South Korean partner, LG Energy Solution. It produces batteries for G.M. electric vehicles.

The New York Times reports that:

The Ultium Cells contract calls for moving workers to a new wage of $30.50 an hour. Over three years, wages will rise to $35 an hour. The national contract signed last fall had increased the Ultium Cells starting wage to $26.91, up from $16.50 an hour when the plant opened.

The Ultium Cells contract also calls for the plant to employ four U.A.W. members as full-time safety representatives, and one full-time industrial hygienist. The union and Ultium workers have raised concerns about working with high-voltage electricity and potentially harmful compounds used in the production of E.V. battery packs.

Some 200 former Lordstown workers who transferred to other plants when GM shuttered the giant plant will soon be transferring to the Ultium plant so they can return to the area.

UAW President Fain indicates that this agreement, if ratified by the members, will be a model for negotiations at the other EV and battery plants.

This agreement comes some two months after a historic union organizing drive at the Chattanooga Tennessee Volkswagen plant, the first such success in a Southern plant in decades.

The corporate empire strikes back

On June 11,the day after the Ultium agreement, a court-appointed monitor, Neil Barofsky, appointed in a 2020 agreement to prevent the UAW from being taken over by the federal government after a huge corruption scandal, blamed Fain for “retaliation against another union officer”. The document “paints a portrait of an organization deeply skeptical of federal efforts to keep the union free from corruption — in stark contrast to Fain’s public image as an ethics-centered activist.”

No actual charges of corruption are made by Barofsky, and Fain strongly denies any wrongdoing:

“Taking our union in a new direction means sometimes you have to rock the boat, and that upsets those who want the status quo, but our members expect this,” Fain said.

“We encourage the Supervisors to investigate any complaints brought to their offices, because we know what they will find: UAW leadership is committed to serving its members and running a union democracy. We are focused on winning record contracts, growing our union, and fighting for social and economic justice on and off the job.”

Whatever Biden’s role in this smear, endorsing political candidates and supporting the Trump / Biden trade war obviously will not prevent these outrageous government attacks on the UAW and the growing trade union movement.

The Big Three, Big Oil, Wall Street, the whole imperialist establishment is not willing to produce the electric vehicles that the workers and oppressed communities can afford and are certainly unwilling to fully compensate the workers to produce them.

Time for change.

So, to continue to fight for high paying jobs for workers to produce low-price EVs essential to reduce carbon emissions, the union movement should consider a different view of socialist China and its vast “green energy” capabilities, as opposed to the billionaire class’s fixation on economic and social hegemony, its trade war and its push towards a military conflict and regime change, as well as its campaign to squeeze everything it can out of our class here.

The Chinese company BYD does have a factory in the U.S. in Los Angeles where it produces electric buses. Unlike their European counterparts in anti-union southern states, the BYD plant’s 700 workers are members of the Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Union (SMART), Local 105.

Since U.S. auto companies are only interested in building fewer and more expensive EVs, costing tens of thousands of dollars more than their gasoline equivalents, the UAW is certainly entitled to call on Biden to invite Chinese auto companies to open plants in this country to produce the same low price high quality EVs they currently produce in China, but only if they pledge to recognize the UAW as the representative of the workers.

The union can also call for the same for Chinese battery companies. BYD, which produce new sodium batteries that are much cheaper, more environmentally “friendly” than lithium batteries, are safer from fire, are not degraded by low or high temperatures, do not require cobalt and other rare metals and are far easier to recycle, could be invited to open facilities in the U.S.

Large sodium batteries used to store solar panel and wind turbine power to be used during nighttime and calm winds are already being produced in China. Soda ash, of which the U.S. has an abundance, could be a sodium source far cheaper than lithium, of which the U.S. has little supply.

Some could even be exported back to China.

Inviting these companies to open such battery plants in this country could be a huge gain for both the union and environmental movement and link the two movements together. Finally, it could convert the dangerous ruling-class spawned hostility towards China into genuine working-class solidarity.

Fry is a Chrysler retiree and former member of UAW Local 51. He  worked on the pre-final line as an assembler at Chrysler Lynch Road Assembly  before  the company shut down the plant.

Part 1 – Biden escalates trade war with China, breaking promise to fight global warming

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