Biden’s tariffs on China: a trade unionist response

What follows below is a two part article by Chris Fry – a Chrysler retiree and former United Auto Workers organiser in Detroit – about Biden’s recently-announced tariffs on China, and how the labour movement in the US should respond to them.

Chris observes that these tariffs are fundamentally detrimental to the interests of working people in the US. Tariffs on medical supplies in particular “must be considered particularly bizarre” given that Covid is resurgent and that there are concerns about a new outbreak of avian flu.

Increasing tariffs on EVs from 25 to 100 percent will double the price of these cars, “placing them out of reach for most of our class”. The author cites an article from Foreign Policy magazine pointing out that “the winner of the escalating, zero-sum green technology trade war between the United States and China may well be climate change”.

Biden has made all sorts of promises in relation to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but, as part of an electoral strategy of out-Trumping Trump, “Biden’s climate promises go right out the window”.

In terms of an appropriate trade union response to the tariffs, Chris writes that “to continue to fight for high paying jobs for workers to produce low-price EVs essential to reduce carbon emissions, the union movement should consider a different view of socialist China and its vast green energy capabilities”.

Unions of course are eager to create and protect jobs; Chris notes that Chinese company BYD already has a factory in Los Angeles producing electric buses and, “unlike their European counterparts in anti-union southern states, the BYD plant’s 700 workers are members of the Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Union (SMART), Local 105”.

Inviting Chinese companies to manufacture essential environmentally-friendly products in the US “could be a huge gain for both the union and environmental movement and link the two movements together. Finally, it could convert the dangerous ruling-class spawned hostility towards China into genuine working-class solidarity.”

The two part article was originally published in Fighting Words, the journal of the Communist Workers League.

Part 1

When Biden was running for office in 2020, he said that Trump’s tariffs on Chinese products increased inflation on the public and promised to reduce or eliminate them.

He did not.

Instead, on May 4, the Biden Administration announced a massive tariff increase on imported goods from the People’s Republic of China (PRC):

Tariffs on medical supplies must be considered particularly bizarre, as the population is still subject to outbreaks of the deadly Covid virus. And public health officials are increasingly alarmed by a new outbreak from the avian H5N1 flu virus which has infected dairy cows and their milk across the country. Many farmworkers who milk cows have become ill from this virus.

A June 3 Scientific American article reports:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that workers on farms where H5N1 has been detected have access to personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as N95 respirators, face masks, goggles and face shields. But it’s only a recommendation, Lakdawala says.

In order to prevent bird flu from causing more infections in humans, Lakdawala thinks dairy workers on all farms should have access to and use proper PPE—especially face shields to protect their eyes. Getting workers to wear N95 masks while working all day in hot barns is unlikely, she notes, but a face shield would provide at least some protection.

But in terms of the economic effects on workers and the oppressed communities, the most dramatic was the tariff increase was on electric vehicles (EVs), going from Trump’s 25 percent to a whopping 100 percent, doubling the price of the cars, placing them out of reach for most of our class.

And Biden tripled tariffs on Chinese-manufactured lithium batteries, going from Trump’s 8% to 25%.

The big winner from Biden’s tariffs: Global warming

A May 28th article from the Foreign Policy website describes these new tariffs from an environmental perspective:

The winner of the escalating, zero-sum green technology trade war between the United States and China may well be climate change. In the latest surge of election-year techno-nationalism, to protect and advance his green transition—and to out-Trump former U.S. President Donald Trump—President Joe Biden last week imposed a wave of new tariffs on Chinese-made electric vehicles (EVs), batteries, and solar cells as well as other Chinese goods, in addition to retaining all of Trump’s tariffs on China.

Scientists are already predicting that 2024 will surpass 2023 as the warmest year globally:

A May 7 CNN article describes some of the catastrophic effects of this on people around the world:

The impacts have been stark. Swaths of Asia have been grappling with deadly heat: schools were closed for millions of children in Bangladesh, rice fields have shriveled in Vietnam, and people in India battled 110 degree Fahrenheit temperatures to vote in recent elections.

Global ocean heat in April was also record-breaking for the 13th consecutive month. Ocean surface temperatures reached 21.04 degrees, the highest on record for any April, and just a fraction below the overall record set in March, according to Copernicus data.

The impact on marine systems is devastating. A mass coral bleaching event occurred this spring, which scientists said at the time could be the worst on record.

As for the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has presented a grim hurricane forecast for 2024:

NOAA National Weather Service forecasters at the Climate Prediction Center predict above-normal hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin this year. NOAA’s outlook for the 2024 Atlantic hurricane season, which spans from June 1 to November 30, predicts an 85% chance of an above-normal season, a 10% chance of a near-normal season and a 5% chance of a below-normal season.

NOAA is forecasting a range of 17 to 25 total named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher). Of those, 8 to 13 are forecast to become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including 4 to 7 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher). Forecasters have a 70% confidence in these ranges.

In 2021, to pass his corporate-friendly Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Biden promised a 50 percent to 52 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (compared to 2005 levels) by 2030, zero net emissions by 2050, and 50 percent of all new vehicles being zero-emission by 2030.

But in his campaign to “out-Trump” Trump and protect corporate profit margins and the oil and gas industry, these new tariffs mean that Biden’s climate promises go right out the window.

As part of Biden’s IRA, billions were allocated for public EV charging stations across the country. Yet by February 2024, there are only 61,000 public chargers in the U.S.

In China, by the end of 2023, there were 2.7 million such chargers, with a 40 percent increase expected this year.

Fry is a Chrysler retiree and former member of UAW Local 51. He  worked on the pre-final line as an assembler at Chrysler Lynch Road Assembly  before  the company shut down the plant.

Part 2

On May 16, Biden’s White House issued a statement quoting union leaders from the AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers, the Teamsters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Auto Workers all applauding Biden’s anti-China tariffs. Most of those union leaders echoed the business leaders who were also on the White House statement, commending Biden for “defending American industries” from Chinese “overcapacity” in production of electric vehicles (ERVs) and their batteries.

Even the supposed environmental group Sierra Club was quoted as supporting Biden’s tariffs, despite gasoline-powered vehicles currently producing some 25% of carbon emissions that are accelerating global warming.

But the UAW, under the leadership of Shawn Fain, struck a markedly different tone in its statement supporting the tariffs. There was no defense of American industry. Instead, it condemns “corporate greed” that is “pitting worker against worker, pushing wages lower and lower”:

“The UAW applauds today’s decisive action from the White House on ensuring that the transition to electric vehicles is a just transition. We have warned for many months that, left to the forces of corporate greed, the EV future was threatened by a race to the bottom, from China to Mexico to right here in the United States. Making sure that major corporations have to pay a price for pitting worker against worker, pushing wages lower and lower, is a key part of a pro-worker trade policy. America’s autoworkers, our families, and working-class communities across this country want a trade policy that puts workers first. Today’s announcement is a major step in the right direction.”

UAW reaches a contract agreement for battery workers.

The historic UAW “Stand Up” 2023 contract, won after a militant strike of all three of the “Big 3” companies (General Motors, Ford and Stellantis), placed their electric vehicle and battery factories under the national contract. This also applies to all jointly owned facilities with other companies, typically with foreign ones.

On June 10, the union reached a tentative agreement covering 1600 workers at the Ultium Cells plant in Lordstown, Ohio, a joint venture between General Motors and a South Korean partner, LG Energy Solution. It produces batteries for G.M. electric vehicles.

The New York Times reports that:

The Ultium Cells contract calls for moving workers to a new wage of $30.50 an hour. Over three years, wages will rise to $35 an hour. The national contract signed last fall had increased the Ultium Cells starting wage to $26.91, up from $16.50 an hour when the plant opened.

The Ultium Cells contract also calls for the plant to employ four U.A.W. members as full-time safety representatives, and one full-time industrial hygienist. The union and Ultium workers have raised concerns about working with high-voltage electricity and potentially harmful compounds used in the production of E.V. battery packs.

Some 200 former Lordstown workers who transferred to other plants when GM shuttered the giant plant will soon be transferring to the Ultium plant so they can return to the area.

UAW President Fain indicates that this agreement, if ratified by the members, will be a model for negotiations at the other EV and battery plants.

This agreement comes some two months after a historic union organizing drive at the Chattanooga Tennessee Volkswagen plant, the first such success in a Southern plant in decades.

The corporate empire strikes back

On June 11,the day after the Ultium agreement, a court-appointed monitor, Neil Barofsky, appointed in a 2020 agreement to prevent the UAW from being taken over by the federal government after a huge corruption scandal, blamed Fain for “retaliation against another union officer”. The document “paints a portrait of an organization deeply skeptical of federal efforts to keep the union free from corruption — in stark contrast to Fain’s public image as an ethics-centered activist.”

No actual charges of corruption are made by Barofsky, and Fain strongly denies any wrongdoing:

“Taking our union in a new direction means sometimes you have to rock the boat, and that upsets those who want the status quo, but our members expect this,” Fain said.

“We encourage the Supervisors to investigate any complaints brought to their offices, because we know what they will find: UAW leadership is committed to serving its members and running a union democracy. We are focused on winning record contracts, growing our union, and fighting for social and economic justice on and off the job.”

Whatever Biden’s role in this smear, endorsing political candidates and supporting the Trump / Biden trade war obviously will not prevent these outrageous government attacks on the UAW and the growing trade union movement.

The Big Three, Big Oil, Wall Street, the whole imperialist establishment is not willing to produce the electric vehicles that the workers and oppressed communities can afford and are certainly unwilling to fully compensate the workers to produce them.

Time for change.

So, to continue to fight for high paying jobs for workers to produce low-price EVs essential to reduce carbon emissions, the union movement should consider a different view of socialist China and its vast “green energy” capabilities, as opposed to the billionaire class’s fixation on economic and social hegemony, its trade war and its push towards a military conflict and regime change, as well as its campaign to squeeze everything it can out of our class here.

The Chinese company BYD does have a factory in the U.S. in Los Angeles where it produces electric buses. Unlike their European counterparts in anti-union southern states, the BYD plant’s 700 workers are members of the Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Union (SMART), Local 105.

Since U.S. auto companies are only interested in building fewer and more expensive EVs, costing tens of thousands of dollars more than their gasoline equivalents, the UAW is certainly entitled to call on Biden to invite Chinese auto companies to open plants in this country to produce the same low price high quality EVs they currently produce in China, but only if they pledge to recognize the UAW as the representative of the workers.

The union can also call for the same for Chinese battery companies. BYD, which produce new sodium batteries that are much cheaper, more environmentally “friendly” than lithium batteries, are safer from fire, are not degraded by low or high temperatures, do not require cobalt and other rare metals and are far easier to recycle, could be invited to open facilities in the U.S.

Large sodium batteries used to store solar panel and wind turbine power to be used during nighttime and calm winds are already being produced in China. Soda ash, of which the U.S. has an abundance, could be a sodium source far cheaper than lithium, of which the U.S. has little supply.

Some could even be exported back to China.

Inviting these companies to open such battery plants in this country could be a huge gain for both the union and environmental movement and link the two movements together. Finally, it could convert the dangerous ruling-class spawned hostility towards China into genuine working-class solidarity.

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