President Joe Biden recently called leading auto industry stakeholders to the White House for a new announcement on vehicle emissions last week, and Tesla was conspicuous by its absence. The snub seemed to make no sense considering the Tesla’s lead position in the electric vehicle (EV) field. Some have suggested that Tesla was ghosted for its anti-union position, but other key factors may also be in play.
President Biden swept into office on a promise to support unionized workers, as part of a broad focus on environmental and social justice issues.
Last week’s announcement was a case in point. The August 5 event at the White House was pitched as a new announcement on vehicle emissions policy, but it was clearly intended to draw attention to the role of union workers in the effort to compete against overseas automakers as the global economy shifts into electric vehicle technology and cleaner fuels. Of all the car manufacturers with factories in the U.S., only the CEOs of the unionized manufacturers Ford (Jim Farley) and GM (Mary Barra), along with the COO of Stellantis North America (Mark Stewart) were invited to attend the August 5 event in person, alongside United Auto Workers President Ray Curry.
The Biden Administration also issued a fact sheet for the August 5 event that included union workers from the very first paragraph. It also gave a lion’s share of quotable comments to Curry.
“Today, automakers, the United Autoworkers (UAW), and other leaders, released statements on the Biden Administration’s steps to strengthen American leadership on clean cars and trucks,” the fact sheet began.
After a brief 200-word statement shared jointly by Ford, GM and Stellantis, the fact sheet devoted more than 350 words exclusively to UAW’s Curry.
Curry lead off by advocating for a united front to compete against China and Europe. The White House also provided him with ample space to emphasize the key role of American union workers.
“The UAW focus is not on hard deadlines or percentages, but on preserving the wages and benefits that have been the heart and soul of the American middle class,” he said, echoing the campaign promises of President Biden.
“The members of the UAW, current and future, are ready to build these electric cars and trucks and the batteries that go in them,” he continued, calling UAW workers “America’s secret weapon” against overseas competition.
“Any auto industry transition to alternative fueled engines must be paired with passage of the Stabenow Amendment and passage or an agreement to adhere to the policies of the PRO Act to ensure these jobs of the future will protect UAW members, their families, and our American middle class,” he concluded.
To be clear, the relationship between unions and the U.S. auto industry is not all hearts and flowers. That sentiment is reflected in the Ford-GM-Stellantis joint statement, which focused on decarbonization policy. The statement reserved a flitting, almost grudging nod to union workers near the end.
“With the UAW at our side in transforming the workforce and partnering with us on this journey, we believe we can strengthen continued American leadership in clean transportation technology,” the automakers said.
Of interest, the fact sheet also drew attention to the fact that Tesla was not the only automaker not present at the White House event. The fact sheet included a joint statement regarding California’s decarbonization policies shared by Ford along with several automakers with non-union factories in the U.S.: BMW, Honda, Volkswagen and Volvo.
As may be expected, that statement failed to mention union workers at all. It suggests that anti-union activity was not the only reason for Tesla’s absence from both the White House event and the fact sheet.
The media radar perked up last week when a reporter questioned White House spokesperson Jen Psaki over why Tesla was not included.
Her reply hinted that Tesla’s history of troubles relating to unions was at the root of it, specifically the battle to organize workers at a Tesla factory in California.
However, other non-union shops had the opportunity to contribute to the fact sheet. Tesla conspicuously did not, indicating that President Biden may also have used the event to send a message about his expectations for public-private collaboration and intra-industry cooperation.
That is another area where Tesla falls short. During the initial COVID-19 pandemic lockdown last spring, Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk established a reputation for breaking ranks with leading manufacturers on worker safety measures. Aided by a Twitter barrage against the lockdown, Musk made a flamboyant point of re-opening the Tesla factory in Fremont, California days before the agreed-upon May 18 date to which other manufacturers had adhered.
Musk’s media record on COVID-19 prevention has also done him no favors. He used his powerful social media platform to downplay the dangers of the virus all throughout last year, echoing former President Trump’s efforts to minimize the danger in an election year.
In a September 2020 interview with tech reporter Kara Swisher, Musk also claimed that he would not take a COVID-19 vaccine when available. In April 2021, long after vaccines became widely available, he finally clarified that he did not mean to cast aspersions on the safety and efficiency of vaccines. However, as of this writing Musk has not publicly reversed his stand on getting vaccinated himself, and his worker safety policies continue to diverge from science-based CDC recommendations.
Another factor at play could be the lobbying group, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.
AAI claims to represent almost 99 percent of the U.S. car and truck market, including both domestic and overseas manufacturers. It does not include Tesla in its membership, possibly because one of its focus areas is advocating for federal safety standards for automated driving systems. The technology is not unique to Tesla, but Musk has made it a centerpiece of the car’s appeal to auto enthusiasts, placing his company in a more vulnerable position should federal regulators clamp down.
Another element behind the exclusion could be the emerging industry consensus on hydrogen electric fuel cell vehicles. Musk has famously dismissed fuel cell mobility as “bulls***,” but diversified automakers and startups have begun to include fuel cells in their decarbonization plans. AAI includes at least two manufacturers pushing the envelope on fuel cell electric vehicles, Hyundai and Toyota.
It’s also worth noting that Toyota, Hyundai and other vehicle manufacturers are applying hydrogen fuel cell technology to electrify trucks, locomotives, and mobile construction equipment as well as passenger cars.
AAI was among those to win a spot in the August 5 fact sheet, and AAI President and CEO John Bozzella used the opportunity to emphasize that his members are “committed to a net-zero carbon transportation future” that includes fuel cells as well as plug-in hybrid electric vehicle technology, another area that Musk has dismissed.
“The U.S. needs to rapidly expand its charging and hydrogen fueling infrastructure,” Bozzella concluded.
The fact sheet also included a statement from California Governor Gavin Newsom, who alluded to his state’s diversified approach to decarbonize its transportation sector. Rather than focusing exclusively on battery electric vehicles, Newsom broadly pledged to continue “California’s clean car leadership and deliver the investments needed to support the nationwide build-out of clean vehicle infrastructure.”
All in all, the message from the Biden administration is clear. To get a seat at the inner circle table, automakers in the U.S. need to respect the union movement, collaborate on decarbonization policy, and take a broad, diversified approach to the electric vehicle field.
Image credit: The White House/Facebook
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.