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UAW President Sees Auto Industry's Future Through Rose-Colored Glasses

Ray Curry is bullish on future of EVs, battery plants, newcomers to organize, and negotiations.

Alisa PriddleWriterGetty ImagesPhotographer

You gotta applaud the positive attitude of UAW International President Ray Curry, the man who took over the top union job last June with the retirement of Rory Gamble after a series of scandals, federal probes of bribery and embezzlement, and the arrest and conviction of a number of executives.

Curry also has had to deal with a pandemic and supply chain shortages causing temporary plant closures and layoffs, and is witnessing the transition of the auto industry from traditional jobs making cars with internal combustion engines to a future powered by electric vehicles, in some cases by startups.

With a level voice and straightforward manner, Curry spent an hour answering media questions at an Automotive Press Association event, never giving into the dark forces at bay.

UAW's Optimistic Take on EVs

Rather, the international president painted a picture of opportunity. The electric vehicle and battery plant announcements that are coming fast and furious are opportunities to expand the membership base, even as an increasing number of new jobs are being created in southern states less amenable to organizing. The UAW is increasing its budget for organizing campaigns with so many workplaces to tackle.

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

  • Temporary plant closures over the past couple years: proof the language in master contracts work.
  • Task forces where the union and Detroit automakers worked together on Covid protocols: great opportunity to talk about safety, Curry says.

No Progress Yet on Organizing Tesla

Startups like Tesla, Rivian, and VinFast getting in the EV game: no progress yet but working on organizing Tesla; optimistic about Rivian, which took over a former Mitsubishi plant in a union-friendly part of the country; looking forward to the new plant announced in North Carolina by VinFast.

Battery plants are often joint ventures. Yes, that puts them outside traditional automaker agreements, but Curry sees this new technology as the natural extension of current automaking and thus part of the union's purview. These new plants may not be organized right out of the box, but again Curry sees it as an area of opportunity. Training will be key. The current trend to insource more core components, such as electric motors, inverters, and batteries, is a chance to pull non-unionized suppliers into the fold while reducing the risk of supply chain disruptions and parts delays.

Fears the new plants will mean less jobs? Curry points to the GM plant in Detroit-Hamtramck that had 1,100 workers until it went down for retooling to make EVs. Reinvented as Factory Zero, it will employ 2,200.

The union leader is also bullish on the current Administration and efforts to provide incentives to buy EVs and investment in the charging infrastructure to support them. Moves by states like California or countries like Canada that aim for 100 percent EV sales by 2035 are helpful by providing a timeline.

Trying to Put UAW Scandals in Rear Mirror

And what about the union's tarnished reputation after so many tales and convictions of corruption? Bad apples are gone, reforms are in place, and the union is trying to be transparent with the membership and move on.

Next year is a contract year, with the current Big Three agreements expiring September 14, 2023. And for the first time in many years, the Canadian agreements between Unifor (formerly CAW) and the Detroit automakers will also expire in 2023. Curry says he does not fear automakers trying to whipsaw the two unions or create bidding wars for investment and new product because the Canadian contracts expire in the spring, six months ahead of the UAW deadline.

As for the overall auto industry, Curry sees it as strong, with record profits, high demand, and improving inventory.