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It’s Been a Very Weird 24 Hours for Biden in Michigan

Boy, are the politics of electric vehicles complicated.

President Biden on the picket line.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Is there a better illustration of the tricky politics of the electric vehicle transition than the past 24 hours in Michigan?

The day before President Joe Biden visited a United Autoworkers picket line in the state, Ford, the auto company seen as closest to reaching a deal with the striking union, said it was halting work on the multi-billion-dollar battery plant that had become a flashpoint for Republican concerns that the EV transition was too intertwined with China.

That’s a lot. Let me back up for a second.

Auto companies have announced plans for battery plants all over the country, looking to get a piece of incentives offered by the Inflation Reduction Act. Many of these plants are being planned for states that are hostile to unions and where the UAW has been unable to make inroads. The Ford battery plant in Marshall, Michigan, however, was different.

When the plant was announced earlier this year, the UAW welcomed it, with then-union president Ray Curry saying “Ford got it right by building this plant right here in Michigan.” The plant’s employees would be able to form a union via “card check,” a simpler process than a union election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

Almost immediately after the plant was announced, Republicans in Congress criticized Ford and the Biden administration for the company’s relationship with the Chinese battery company CATL, whose technology Ford would use in the plant.

The tussle over the Marshall plant captures in one planned facility just how politically complicated the electric vehicle transition is.

The Biden administration wants to reduce carbon emissions by electrifying the country’s automotive sector. It also wants to make the supply chain in key industries like cars and semiconductors resilient to shocks like a pandemic or escalating conflict with China. It also wants to see good jobs in states like Michigan which were key to its narrow electoral college victory in 2020.

These goals are all in some tension with each other: China is by far the world’s leader in foundational renewable energy technologies like solar panels and batteries. But if American companies are to build factories in the U.S. to try to catch up, they would rather do so in states where unions have less power than they do in Michigan. That typically means states run by Republicans who have made a point of attracting investment, like Georgia or Tennessee. But that goes against the interests of the UAW, which has subsequently grown very nervous about electrification leaving its work force behind.

Some Republicans have seized on the UAW strikes, striving to portray the Inflation Reduction Act as a massive handout to China that threatens union jobs. The Marshall plant would solve at least one, maybe two of these problems for the Democrats, as it was set up in firm UAW territory, with the support of a Democratic governor. But thanks to Republican opposition to working with Chinese companies, it quickly became the most controversial new Ford project.

While Biden’s standing with the UAW has probably received a large boost from his appearance in Romulus and his explicit support for higher wages for UAW members, the question over the Marshall plant shows just how perilous the historic tie-up between the Democratic Party and unionized autoworkers is — for both sides.

Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.


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