Since they're staring down the utterly monumental costs of pivoting their century-old industry to one that's centered around batteries and software, the automakers would appreciate it very much if their workforce didn't ask for more money and better benefits. And yet, the workers have something else in mind. And after a very successful year for the United Auto Workers union, the Alabama plant where Mercedes-Benz builds two EVs may be next to unionize.
That kicks off today's post-CES Critical Materials roundup. Also on tap: more disappointing news from Electrify America and ChargePoint (is there any other kind from them?), and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has the EV tax credits in his sights again. Here's what you need to know for the day ahead.
30%: UAW To Mercedes: You're Next
Mercedes-Benz Plant Tuscaloosa opened in 1997 as the automaker's first-ever major factory outside Germany, and in the years since it has manufactured hundreds of sedans and SUVs destined for U.S. roads and for export as well. Today, it even builds the Mercedes EQS and EQE SUVs. And if the UAW has its way, it could be among the first "foreign" plants to unionize in the U.S. too.
Last night, the union announced that 30% of workers at the plant had signed union authorization cards—an important milestone in the organizing process. That allowed them to go public with the news, and at 70%, it will seek collective bargaining from Mercedes voluntarily or through an election. The local Tuscaloosa News has more on why some workers there are seeking to unionize, and you can hear directly from them in the video above too:
Workers quoted in the statement announcing the union drive said wages had stagnated at the plant.
“Back in the day, you could get by on the pay here,” said Derrick Todd, an online quality team member who began working at the plant in 2005. “We topped out in two years. Now some people go through a temp agency for years before they even get on the pay scale. Year after year, the company says they’ve got record profits and sales, but our pay doesn’t keep up. It’s time to set things right. It’s time that we had our voice heard.”
Previous union drives there failed in 1999 and 2000. But that was a long time ago now; it was before the Great Recession, the bailouts, the slow decline of Big Three manufacturing jobs and an EV revolution that's led many to wonder just how many such jobs will be needed in the future.
It was also before the UAW won historic victories in last year's strikes on the Big Three—strikes those automakers are still paying for. This UAW is led by President Shawn Fain, who's made clear he's coming after everybody: Tesla, Toyota, Nissan, and who knows: probably Fisker, Rivian, Aptera, Elio Motors, Gas Monkey Garage... everybody.
This UAW has a lot of momentum and probably a lot of workers who saw those gains on General Motors and Ford and now want in. (And again, it's notable that this is happening at a factory that builds EVs, one Mercedes surely wants to scale up in the coming years.)
60%: Chargepoint, EA Have Disappointing Year All Around
With 2023 being a record year of sales for every brand that makes electric vehicles, you'd think two of the biggest charging providers would've stepped up in a major way. But apparently, you'd be quite wrong, which is rather disappointing. Our friends at BloombergNEF, the news wire's energy research arm, indicate that charger installations were actually down quite a bit in 2023 from the previous year:
How is that possible, with so much federal money flowing that way? For one, it takes a while for states to distribute that money, and then it takes even longer for money to turn into chargers in the ground. The first Inflation Reduction Act-funded charging station didn't even go online until Dec. 13 last year. That's part of the problem.
The other issue is that investors are getting fed up with the charging providers themselves, which are rampantly unprofitable. And in the case of ChargePoint—where property owners order the installations—businesses held off on such investments out of lingering fear of that recession that's never happened, Bloomberg reports.
There was one big exception, of course, emphasis mine here:
ChargePoint Holdings Inc. and Electrify America grew slightly in 2023, adding just 410 and 588 fast chargers, respectively, the report noted. EVgo Inc. added 850 fast chargers compared with Tesla Inc., which installed 6,000. The BNEF figures are based on the number of fast-charging connectors.
It's no wonder why so many automakers switched to Tesla's plug and opted into its Supercharger network. That will help with some of these issues, but it may also turn Tesla into a charging monopoly someday.
90%: Manchin To Grill Energy And Treasury Departments On EV Tax Credits
Speaking of the Inflation Reduction Act, the conservative-leaning Democratic West Virginia senator who is responsible for the bill's name is holding a hearing today targeting how the Biden White House has implemented the EV tax credits.
Here's what to expect from a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing today, held by Sen. Joe Manchin, via E&E Daily:
Adewale Adeyemo, the Treasury Department's deputy secretary, and David Turk, deputy secretary at the Department of Energy, will testify during a hearing aimed at examining the government’s handling of electric vehicle incentives and broader supply chain concerns.
No Inflation Reduction Act issue has been more contentious for the West Virginia Democratic senator than EV tax credits. Manchin, one of the law’s authors, has repeatedly accused the president of sidestepping mineral sourcing requirements.
“It is horrific that the Administration continues to ignore the purpose of the law, which is to bring manufacturing back to America and ensure we have reliable and secure supply chains,” Manchin said last year.
Even though the EV tax credits are more restrictive than ever this year, Manchin reportedly does not believe it's good enough to fend of China's dominance of the battery supply chain; the news wire says that Manchin believes automakers should be ineligible if “any of the applicable critical minerals contained in the battery” come from China or other foreign adversaries. That's a tough act to pull off, given how nascent America's battery production operation is.
According to prepared remarks, Adeyemo is expected to counter thusly:
As you know, the People’s Republic of China (China) has, for over a decade, pursued non- market policies and practices to further state-led industrial targeting and channeled enormous amounts of financial support into developing its EV sector, seeking to help Chinese firms establish a dominant position in the global EV market. China’s targeted government intervention and investments in clean energy totaled over $500 billion in 2022 alone, nearly four times the investment in the U.S. and more than 1.5 times the U.S. and European Union combined. Today, China produces over half the world’s EVs and an even larger share of EV batteries.
[...] While China is ahead of us on EVs today, by enacting the IRA and [Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act], you have given the United States the ability to not only compete but to lead an effort to build an alternative global supply chain. Of course, because our domestic system is different from China’s, our path to building a resilient domestic EV production base is also different. Instead of directing industry, the IRA and IIJA provide incentives that support the private sector in building the EV ecosystem, from manufacturing and procurement to adoption and charging. Importantly, these incentives foster competition.
It's unclear what Manchin wants out of today's hearing. He will not stand for re-election in 2024, and while he's been tipped as a possible third-party presidential candidate, that feels quite unlikely. More on this as it develops.
100%: Does The UAW Have A Chance At Organizing Foreign Plants Now?
And what does that mean on the cusp of the electric vehicle transformation?
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