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Biden Heads for the Barricades

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After little more than a week, the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike gets a visit Tuesday from President Biden, who will travel to Michigan to join the picket line. Union leaders invited Biden.

On Wednesday, former President Trump is scheduled to visit a non-union shop near Detroit.

To say Biden’s visit is unprecedented is obvious. No sitting president has ever walked a picket line. But the issues facing the president, the union and the automakers will not magically disappear after Biden leaves. As the saying goes, it’s complicated.

Biden’s support for the transition to electric vehicles has put the issue of unionized workers at battery-making plants front and center. The transition will cost Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F), General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) and Stellantis N.V. (NASDAQ: STLA) billions. The companies are juggling labor costs and capital spending with keeping investors happy with dividends and share buybacks.

Stellantis, for example, announced just days before the strike began that it was going ahead with the third and final tranche of a €1.5 billion ($1.6 billion) share buyback program it had announced in February.

In a statement issued Tuesday morning, Stellantis commented on Biden’s visit to the picket line:

… Unlike the non-unionized transplants and EV startups who comprise the majority of the U.S. market, Stellantis relies on the collaboration between management and labor to ensure that our company remains competitive, and, therefore, sustainable. That is a position we have proudly embraced. But it also requires a balanced agreement that fairly rewards our workforce for their contribution to our success, without significantly disadvantaging Stellantis against our non-union competitors. …

No mention of buybacks there. Both Ford and GM have also repurchased billions of dollars in their own stock. According to a Bloomberg report, GM has bought back $14.2 billion in shares since exiting ‌bankruptcy protection in 2010. Between 2012 and 2022, Ford has repurchased $3.5 billion in its own stock.

And at least some of the industry’s big investors think the automakers can afford to meet the union’s demands. Patrick Kaser, a portfolio manager for Brandywine Global, told Bloomberg, “The companies have room to go higher than their current offer. If they pause the buyback because they need to invest in an attractive longer-term plan, that is fine.”

Ford agreed to some union demands, and none of its distribution centers were included in the 38 new walkouts announced last Friday.

On Tuesday, Ford announced that it is halting construction of an EV battery plant in Marshall, Michigan, that would employ about 2,500 workers, until the company is confident that it can profitably operate the plant.

UAW President Shawn Fain had this to say about Ford’s announcement:

This is a shameful, barely veiled threat by Ford to cut jobs. Closing 65 plants over the last 20 years wasn’t enough for the Big Three, now they want to threaten us with closing plants that aren’t even open yet. We are simply asking for a just transition to electric vehicles and Ford is instead doubling down on their race to the bottom.

Also at play in the construction of the battery plant is Ford’s partnership with Chinese battery maker CATL. Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst with Guidehouse Insights, told the Associated Press that Ford’s decision may have more to do with opposition from nearby residents: “They don’t want the factory, they don’t want the traffic, and they don’t want anything associated with a Chinese company.”

It’s complicated.

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