Ford & UAW: Why Unions Are Threatened By The EV Transition, Want Battery Plant Work

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Various outlets report that Ford and UAW are at odds over battery production. Ford and its partner, SK Innovation, plan to build several plants to produce batteries for Ford’s electric vehicles, and they aren’t sure that they want the plants to use union labor. UAW is afraid this will lead to fewer union jobs in the future as production shifts to EVs.

Ford currently has the short term supply of batteries for its current EV projects, like the Mach-E, F-150 Lightning, and E-Transit. Supplies for future projects, and possibly for increased production of these vehicles, is going to depend on increasing the supply. For that reason, Ford is expanding the partnership with SK to build more plants. With some states even planning bans of new internal combustion vehicles in the 2030s, it’s critical that the company drastically increase supply.

With battery production becoming one of the most complex tasks in automotive production, the UAW wants their piece of that pie, and they’re afraid that they won’t get it.

In The Past, Batteries Didn’t Threaten Unions

In the past, batteries have never been more than a minor component for Ford’s (and everyone else’s) vehicles. Historically, the small lead-acid 12-volt batteries were only there to run the vehicle’s starter, lighting, and later more electronics and infotainment, but compared to complex components like the engine, transmission, and many other things, it was still next to nothing. Sourcing batteries from a non-union shop has never been a big hit to the union.

Even with hybrids, like the Ford Escape Hybrid and those that followed, the traction battery was small, and complemented the existing powertrain instead of replacing it. Thus, no union jobs were on the chopping block.

Battery electric vehicles (BEV), with no supporting ICE engine and a much simpler transmission, change the whole situation.

ICE Vehicles Give The Unions A Lot Of Work

Building engines is a complex affair.

To EV fanatics, a gas engine may seem primitive, but a lot of different work goes into producing them. There’s the engine block, which needs to be built to exacting specifications, with increasingly complex shapes developing over the decades. The block needs bearings between it and the crank, another somewhat complex shape. The crank has rods to connect it to the wrist pin, and then the piston itself. The pistons have several small components to seal up the combustion chamber called “rings.”

And that’s just the bottom end of the engine. There’s a complex valvetrain, with camshaft(s), valves, springs, the head itself, and chain(s) or belt(s). When an engine is built in a multi-head configuration, like a flat-4, V6, or V8, then these parts all multiply. There’s the lubrication system, cooling system, and engine accessories to provide fuel, electricity for the car, starting power, air, and exhaust.

At the end of the day, it’s a very complex design that sometimes needs multiple plants with thousands of workers to produce.

An EV basically replaces all of this with something not much more complex than the gas engine’s alternator. The two moving components, the rotor and the stator, don’t require anywhere near the complex machining and careful assembly than a gas engine does.

AC motors (commonly used in EVs) are more complex, but they’re still far less complex than a gasoline or diesel engine. With far fewer parts, there are a lot less jobs available for the union at automotive plants. Plus, that assumes it all isn’t purchased from a non-union supplier.

The same is true for the rest of the EV’s powertrain. Gas engines have a complex transmission to provide different gear ratios so that the gas engine doesn’t go too slow and stall, or go too fast and break apart, while giving the vehicle the range of speeds we expect from it. This all means that another plant (or series of plants) are needed to produce that part. Once again, thousands of union jobs are available building transmissions.

It’s commonly said that EVs don’t have transmissions, and that’s only partially true. They do need at least a single-speed gear reducer — basically a one-speed transmission. This is simple, small, and a lot easier to build than a gas engine’s transmission. It’s often even integrated into the same housing as an electric motor, making for one simple part, called a “drive unit.”

Here’s a quick animation showing how this works in a Tesla (the video skips to the drive unit part, but feel free to watch the whole thing if you have time):

Compare this simple setup with that of an automatic transmission:

Because the machining, assembly, and other work in the plant is much simpler, far fewer jobs will be needed building an EV’s drive unit than an ICE engine and an automatic transmission. There’s still plenty of assembly work that will be needed, but they’re going to take a big hit.

Making Batteries & Battery Packs Could Give Some Of Those Jobs Back

The battery pack doesn’t have much in the way of moving parts, but it’s still a complex chemical machine that does a lot of the work.

Each battery cell (there are thousands of them) requires complex work to get going. Then, the cells need to be assembled into modules with liquid cooling (hopefully), battery management, and other necessary things. Then, these cells get assembled into a larger battery pack, which can be shipped to the final assembly plant for the vehicle.

How This Could Work Out For Ford & The Unions

Without the motor and transmission to build, the UAW hopes that it can unionize the assembly plants for battery cells and battery packs, so they can still have complex work to do. With Ford’s prominent display of unions during the reveal of the F-150 Lightning, one would think that Ford would be excited to use union labor for the battery plants, but it might not be totally up to them.

For one, its partner SK is a factor. Ford can’t made the decision to bring the unions in independently. It’s possible for the unions to form new unions in the factories after they open, but that’s more complex and confrontational than being invited into the project from the beginning. It’s also possible that Ford and SK may decide to not open the battery plants in the United States, which would then give UAW basically no opportunity unionize the plants now or later.

Featured image: Battery pack assembly at a Volkswagen plant, photo provided by VW.


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