Electric cars

UAW president sees future of auto industry through rose-colored glasses

UAW president sees future of auto industry through rose-colored glasses

You have to applaud the positive attitude of UAW International President Ray Curry, the man who took over as union leader last June with the retirement of Rory Gamble after a series of scandals, federal investigations into corruption and embezzlement, as well as the arrest and conviction of a number of executives.

Curry has also had to contend with a pandemic and supply chain shortages resulting in temporary plant closures and layoffs, and is witnessing the auto industry’s transition from traditional motor car manufacturing jobs to internal combustion towards a future powered by electric vehiclesin some cases by startups.

With a poised voice and direct manners, Curry spent an hour answering questions from the media at an Automotive Press Association event, never giving in to dark forces at bay.

The UAW’s bullish view on electric vehicles

On the contrary, the international president painted a picture of opportunity. Announcements for electric vehicles and battery factories that come fast and furiously are opportunities to expand the membership base, even as growing numbers of new jobs are being created in less union-friendly southern states. The UAW is increasing its budget to run campaigns with as many workplaces to address.

Here is his surprisingly rosy take on a number of issues:

  • Temporary plant closures over the past two years: proof that the language of framework contracts works.
  • Task forces where the union and Detroit automakers worked together on Covid protocols: a great opportunity to talk about safety, Curry says.

No progress on Tesla’s organization yet

Battery factories are often joint ventures. Yes, it puts them outside of traditional automaker deals, but Curry sees this new technology as a natural extension of current auto manufacturing and therefore within the purview of the union. These new factories may not be organized from the get-go, but again, Curry sees this as an opportunity. Training will be key. The current trend to outsource more core components, such as electric motors, inverters and batteries, is a chance to bring non-union suppliers into the fold while reducing the risk of supply chain disruptions and part delays.

Worried that new factories mean fewer jobs? Curry mentions the GM plant in Detroit-Hamtramck which had 1,100 workers until it broke down to retool to make electric vehicles. Reimagined as Factory Zeroit will employ 2,200 people.

The union leader is also optimistic about the current administration and efforts to provide incentives to buy electric vehicles and invest in charging infrastructure to support them. Actions taken by states like California or countries like Canada that aim for 100% electric vehicle sales by 2035 are helpful in providing a timeline.

Trying to put UAW scandals in the rearview mirror

And what about the tarnished reputation of the union after so many stories and convictions for corruption? The bad apples are gone, the reforms are in place and the union is trying to be transparent with the members and move forward.

Next year is a contract year, with the current Big Three agreements expiring on September 14, 2023. And for the first time in many years, Canadian agreements between Unifor (formerly CAW) and the Detroit automakers will also expire in 2023. Curry says he’s not worried automakers will try to thwart the two unions or create bidding wars over investment and new products because Canadian contracts expire in the spring, six months before the deadline for the UAW.

As for the auto industry as a whole, Curry views it as strong, with record profits, strong demand and improving inventories.