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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Labor groups target Hyundai — and Biden — over transition to electric

President Joe Biden speaks about Hyundai’s decision to invest in an electric vehicle and battery factory in Georgia, during an event in Seoul, South Korea, May 22, 2022, as Euisun Chung, the chairman of Hyundai Motor Group, looks on.

By Jonathan Weisman

A coalition of labor unions and civic groups in Georgia and Alabama launched a pressure campaign on Monday targeting Hyundai’s electric vehicle plants and its clean energy suppliers, an effort that could also push the Biden administration to make good on its oft-repeated pledge to create not just jobs but “good union jobs.”

By focusing on the shift to electric vehicles at Hyundai, a nonunion carmaker expected to reap huge benefits from Biden’s prized initiatives, the coalition hopes to make inroads at other automakers, such as BMW in South Carolina and Mercedes-Benz in Alabama, which similarly chose union-hostile territory for their U.S. manufacturing bases.

The campaign could also raise the heat on domestic automakers in the middle of contract negotiations with the newly aggressive United Automobile Workers, who are focused on raising wages at electric vehicle suppliers like battery makers.

For Biden, the Hyundai campaign has political ramifications, in setting specific demands on one of the largest automakers in the world in one of the most important swing states in the 2024 presidential election, Georgia.

“The people in the community should be able to come to work in these plants, with a livable wage and good jobs,” said Yvonne T. Brooks, president of the Georgia state AFL-CIO, adding that “to bring jobs here but not provide a livable wage kind of defeats the purpose.”

Biden has campaigned on the sheer number of jobs created by his three signature laws, a $1 trillion infrastructure package, a $280 billion measure to rekindle a domestic semiconductor industry, and the Inflation Reduction Act, which included $370 billion for clean energy to combat climate change. A $25 million advertising blitz announced by his campaign last week kicked off with a one-minute spot that proclaims, “Manufacturing jobs are coming home,” and “America is leading the world in clean energy.”

But despite low unemployment, tempering inflation and steady job creation, Biden’s overall approval ratings have been dragged down by voters’ refusal to give him credit for the good economic news. Clifford Young, who oversees U.S. public opinion research at Ipsos, a polling company, said that last year’s 8.5% inflation and the ensuing interest rate hikes and slower economic growth might have sealed Biden’s fate with the voting public.

“The dirty secret is a bad economy hurts a president more than a good economy helps,” he said.

White House officials, who were notified of the Hyundai effort ahead of time, said Thursday that Biden fully backs the aims of the coalition in Georgia. And labor leaders have generally supported Biden as the most pro-union president ever.

But in a notable shift, those leaders also say the volume of jobs created on his watch might not be enough to win worker loyalties if those jobs are low-paid, dangerous and insecure. That is especially true if substandard jobs are underwritten by the taxpayer.

“I know the president can’t make stipulations that all new jobs have to go to union workers, but there have to be fair labor standards for jobs that are supported by tax dollars,” said David Green, the United Automobile Workers’ regional director for Ohio and Indiana. “Members are a little frustrated with it. It’s our tax dollars, too.”

Such concerns have led the UAW to withhold its endorsement of Biden as the union’s new leadership threatens to strike over wages and benefits at electric vehicle suppliers. Biden has responded with support, tapping a senior adviser and Democratic veteran, Gene B. Sperling, as liaison between the union and the automakers and backing the UAW this month in contract negotiations.

But union leaders are worried about the transition that Biden has set in motion with his push to address climate change with federal money funding the shift from fossil fuels. They are pressing automakers shifting to electric vehicles to “honor the right to organize,” take necessary steps to avoid plant closings, and provide training programs to help workers transition into new jobs at comparable wages.

A letter to the chief executive of Hyundai’s American subsidiary, José Muñoz, signed by coalition members including the UAW, the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (which is particularly close to Biden), and religious, community and environmental groups, maps key labor demands.

Such letters, demanding “community benefits agreements” enforced with binding arbitration systems, have been trotted out in the past to little effect. But union leaders said the Hyundai effort is more focused and forward-looking, hinting at the strategy of organizers in the South as unions across the country have become much more aggressive.

The letter pushes for Hyundai and its subsidiaries to hire locally, train workers from the communities around the plants, bolster safety standards, and protect the environment around the plants, which are expected to employ more than 30,000 Georgians and Alabamians. Of those, 12,750 are expected to work at or around Hyundai’s new electric vehicle “megasite” in Bryan County near Savannah, the largest economic development project in Georgia’s history.

The coalition is seeking a binding agreement modeled on one reached last year with the electric bus maker New Flyer, which promised, among other things, that at least 45% of new hires and 20% of promotions would be women, minorities and U.S. military veterans.

“These facilities will transform our communities, and we are faced with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure that this transformation is for the best,” the coalition wrote, demanding that Hyundai and its suppliers come to the bargaining table to make “highroad commitments to workers and their communities.”

A spokesperson for Hyundai USA, Michael Stewart, said in a statement that the company’s “top priority is the safety and well-being of the more than 114,000 individuals we employ, directly and indirectly, whose market-leading skills and expertise are driving America’s auto industry forward.”

The Biden administration has had some successes with clean energy companies, securing commitments by a Danish wind energy giant to use union labor on its offshore wind projects and by a North Dakota metals company to stay neutral in any union drive at its new battery plant.

But union leaders have only so much influence over the rank and file — and against the pull of Donald Trump, who has made working-class appeals central to his political movement. Green pointed to the former president’s promise to revive a General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, by enticing an untested startup to buy the facility. That startup, Lordstown Motors, filed for bankruptcy protection in late June.

“I will not, could not support any endorsement of Donald Trump,” he said. “But we’ve got a lot of members. Do I think that Trump’s rhetoric is contagious among our members? Absolutely.”

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