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Unions face a reckoning with electric vehicles

Illustration of a raised fist icon that starts to crackle with electricity.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The workers who assemble batteries for electric vehicles earn less than their counterparts who build internal combustion cars and trucks.

Why it matters: The pay disparity is just one of the challenges facing the green economy as funding pours in, factories sprout up and workers fill the space.

What's happening: As the United Auto Workers union shifts to electric vehicles, questions are emerging as to whether the promised "green jobs" are as good as clean-energy investors, executives and advocates like to claim.

Of note: Electric cars are commonly described as batteries on wheels. It's an oversimplification, but they're generally easier to make than internal combustion engines.

  • Perhaps as a result, workers building the "Ultium" battery used in GM vehicles like the Hummer and Lyriq are reportedly paid one-third less on average than workers assembling internal combustion cars and trucks.
  • The disparity is even bigger in some cases. At GM and LG's joint Ultium plant in Lordstown, Ohio, workers reportedly earn $15.50-16.50 an hour, compared to $32 at traditional vehicle plants.

What they're saying: "The wages they’re making are less than the McDonald's around the corner from my house," Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University, tells Axios. "So is that really a good job?"

The bottom line: The Biden administration and clean-energy champions have been pushing to promote domestic manufacturing and to show skeptical fossil-fuel workers (and voters) that the energy transition will deliver plentiful, reliable, well-paying jobs.

  • The wage disparity suggests that fulfilling that promise will be much more difficult than these advocates and political leaders like to claim.

Worthy of your time: Worker strikes were up 39% this year. Emily Peck reports on the surge in Axios Markets.

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