A coalition of labor unions and civic groups in Georgia and Alabama will launch 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 Mr. Biden’s prized initiatives, the coalition hopes to make inroads at other automakers, such as B.M.W. in South Carolina and Mercedes-Benz in Alabama, which similarly chose union-hostile territory for their American 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 Mr. 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 A.F.L.-C.I.O., adding that “to bring jobs here but not provide a livable wage kind of defeats the purpose.”
Mr. 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, Mr. 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 percent inflation and the ensuing interest rate hikes and slower economic growth might have sealed Mr. 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 Mr. Biden fully backs the aims of the coalition in Georgia. And labor leaders have generally supported Mr. 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 may 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 U.A.W. to withhold its endorsement of Mr. Biden as the union’s new leadership threatens to strike over wages and benefits at electric vehicle suppliers. Mr. 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 U.A.W. this month in contract negotiations.
But union leaders are worried about the transition that Mr. 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 U.A.W., the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (which is particularly close to Mr. 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 percent of new hires and 20 percent 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 spokesman for Hyundai U.S.A., 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.”
Daniel Flippo, director of the United Steelworkers southeast district, cautioned that community agreements might not have the teeth of union contracts.
At a recent meeting with Energy Department officials about the electric vehicle transition, Mr. Flippo said, he told them, “Look, all this going in to protect workers and worker rights looks good on paper, but if you don’t follow up, it shouldn’t be up to the union organizers to do it for you.”
Democrats secured a raft of provisions in Mr. Biden’s three signature laws to encourage labor organizing, raise wages and favor union apprenticeships and training programs. In May, the administration used those provisions to apply pressure to a Georgia electric bus company, Blue Bird, and support workers trying to unionize its Fort Valley, Ga., plant. The United Steelworkers won that vote.
Mr. Flippo credited a rule in the electric school bus grants that said no federal money could be used to oppose union organizing, such as in hiring union-busting law firms during an organizing drive.
“They did use some of those tactics,” he said, “but all we had to say was we were going to notify the government and request an audit of where their money was going, and it went away.”
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 J. Trump, who has made working-class appeals central to his political movement. Mr. Green pointed to the former president’s promise to revive a General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, by enticing an untested start-up to buy the facility. That start-up, 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.”
Jonathan Weisman is a Chicago-based political correspondent, veteran journalist and author of the novel “No. 4 Imperial Lane” and the nonfiction book “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump.” His career in journalism stretches back 30 years. More about Jonathan Weisman
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