Erika D. Smith

If you think Trump is the only one critical of electric cars, think again

Workers assembly a Model 3 electric vehicles at Tesla’s factory in Fremont.
Workers assembly a Model 3 electric vehicles at Tesla’s factory in Fremont. The New York Times

Somewhere in California, Elon Musk is saying — or at least thinking — “I told you so.”

For months now, the notoriously narcissistic founder of Tesla has been in a very public spat with the United Auto Workers over efforts to unionize the electric automaker’s Fremont plant, the largest of its kind in the U.S.

The union claims Tesla has been firing workers and threatening to take away their stock options as they try to form a collective bargaining unit to improve pay and working conditions. Musk denies it, and in between building tiny submarines, trolling Twitter and selling flamethrowers, he has said he’s fine with unions, while simultaneously painting UAW officials as obsessed obstructionists.

As much as it pains me to say this, he‘s sort of got a point. Just think about what didn’t happen last week.

Amid all the saber-rattling after President Donald Trump’s administration announced plans to revoke California’s right to force automakers to sell a certain number of electric vehicles here, as well as roll back aggressive fuel efficiency standards, the silence from UAW has been deafening.

That’s because the union not only has a complicated relationship with Tesla, it has a complicated relationship with all electric automakers.

It takes far fewer people to manufacture a car that runs on electricity than on an internal combustion engine, meaning that as automakers roll out hundreds of new models of electric vehicles over the next few years, shifting billions of dollars in investments to the new technology, massive job losses are likely to follow. In addition, efforts to unionize electric vehicle production in the U.S. have largely gone nowhere.

It has gotten to the point that a UAW representative was the only person to speak up at a hearing in Washington last month in support of a fishing expedition by the U.S. Commerce Department over whether tariffs should be enacted to counter the supposed national security threat of imported cars and parts.

Jennifer Kelly, UAW’s research director, warned that autoworkers will lose their jobs as the industry shifts to vehicles powered by semiconductors and lithium-ion batteries, of which the United States produces only a small fraction and South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China produce far more.

“The workers who are making engines and transmissions today, their jobs will be eliminated when we make a transition to electric vehicles,” she said. “We’re looking at a considerable net job loss just in that technological transition.”

UAW has stopped short of supporting tariffs, and outgoing UAW President Dennis Williams told reporters earlier this year that he opposed rolling back fuel efficiency standards.

Still, when it comes to electric cars, the union, as Musk can attest, is clearly walking a wishy-washy line.

A UAW spokesman insisted the union isn’t opposed to electric vehicles, and helps build them, but it merely “dealing with the practical aspects of what that will mean.”

It would be nice to have labor squarely on California’s side as the state strikes back at the Trump administration, as it did on Tuesday, with a proposal that would force automakers to comply with stricter standards for tailpipe emissions.

For one thing, UAW is fighting a losing battle. The Trump administration may want to return to the past and ignore the established science of climate change, but the rest of the world is moving toward cleaner, low- and zero-emission vehicles.

Dozens of automakers and suppliers, including General Motors and Ford, are investing in the technology, as is Shell, the multinational oil and gas company. Worldwide, the number of electric cars and plug-in hybrids jumped 54 percent last year, topping 3 million, according to the International Energy Agency. China was the biggest market, followed by the United States.

Meanwhile, California is already home to the largest electric vehicle industry in the country. Some 15,000 Californians work for companies involved with fuel-efficient or zero-emission vehicles and another 400,000 own electric vehicles, more than any other state.

The city of Sacramento has set its sights on being the electric car capital, with plans to bring more than 400 of them to the city for residents to rent. And Sacramento County this week announced plans to install charging stations at Sacramento International Airport.

Instead of fighting this inevitable march toward the future — a strategy that never seems to work — UAW should work with California and automakers to innovate and carve out new jobs in this new industry. Now is not the time to go backwards.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, Erika_D_Smith.