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December 2020

American Automakers' Billion-Dollar Bet on Electric
The Truck of the Future is IBEW

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Americans like trucks.

For every sedan sold in 2019, Americans bought more than two pickups and SUVs. One of every five cars sold was a midsize sedan in 2012; today it's barely one in 10.

Trucks are useful and roomy, and in terms of comfort, they have come a long way since Chevrolet sold its first pickup a century ago without a bed — the customer had to install his own.

But there is a problem with trucks and SUVs. Automakers are moving away from the internal combustion engine. Electric cars have fewer parts, no transmissions, no tune-ups, and, most important for meeting changing global regulations, no greenhouse gas emissions.

But electric cars, however simple and clean, never sold very well to Americans, in no small part because you couldn't get a truck.

Until now.

During Game 1 of the 2020 World Series, General Motors unveiled what it promises will be the world's first electric supertruck: the 1,000 horsepower Hummer EV with a Saturn rocket's worth of torque.

The Hummer is the first of at least a six-pack of electric pickups and SUVs that are expected on sales lots in the next two years, including the Tesla Cybertruck, the Rivian R1T and R1S, the Cadillac LYRIQ, the Volkswagen ID4 and, of course, the best-selling vehicle in the U.S., the Ford F-150.

And it isn't a one-off show-car promise that won't pan out. Each of them will be assembled in IBEW-built and maintained plants. Construction has already begun on many of them, and the trucks that roll off the lines will be plugged into an IBEW-built and maintained grid with power from IBEW-built and maintained nuclear, hydro, coal, wind, solar and gas powerhouses.

In addition to Rivian, Tesla, GM and Ford, there are a handful of hopefuls, lesser-known start-ups including the Bollinger B1 and B2, the Nikola Badger, the Lordstown Endurance and the Atlis XT, which may well come with an IBEW stamp next to their names.

Globally, automakers have announced $300 billion in investments in EV technology over the next 10 years. Well over half of that is destined for China and Europe, but tens of billions will find its way into the pockets of IBEW construction members building new assembly plants and hundreds of supplier factories that will grow around their homes in North America.

And along with the stump-pulling attraction of an SUV you never have to gas up or tune up, there is a push.

Just weeks before what GM humbly called a short film launching the Hummer, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that will effectively ban the sale of cars and passenger trucks with internal combustion engines in the state by 2035, with a similar ban on gas and diesel-powered medium and heavy-duty trucks by 2045.

We are, wrote Pulitzer-prize winning automotive journalist Dan Neil, "living through the S-curve of EV adoption" and 2020 could very well become "the year of the electric vehicle."

And all those millions of EVs will need power from millions of charging stations. The Edison Electric Institute, the association of investor-owned utilities and the unions that staff them, predicts that there will be 18.7 million EVs on the road in the U.S. by 2030 supported by 9.6 million charging stations.

Those, too, could be IBEW built.

The Big Three

But first, manufacturers have to build the trucks somewhere.

In the days before the world premiere of the Hummer EV, GM held an equally important but lower-profile event, changing the name of the storied Detroit Hamtramck assembly plant to Factory Zero.

The name change was backed by an announcement that the company would invest an unprecedented $2.2 billion to transform it into the showpiece production line for its electric vehicle future, the largest single investment in a plant in GM history.

The plant was stripped nearly bare at the beginning of the year, and wall-to-wall union craft will rebuild it with Detroit Local 58 installing new tools, conveyor lines, controls, a paint shop and battery assembly facility by November of next year.

Local 58 is also building a 30kW solar carport and 516kW ground-mounted PV array.

"There are going to be 400 to 600 people in all crafts," said Local 58 Business Manager Brian Richard. "It might go up to 1,400."

Richard expects there will be between six and eight Local 58 signatory contractors on the job.

"We have been talking about EV for a long time. Now the commitment is there, and all hands are on deck," Richard said. "We always get those auto jobs in on time. With our signatories, we get it done."

There are between 130 and 140 electricians on site already, Richard said, a number that will ramp up to 200 in the next few months.

The reality of working during a pandemic is changing some things. For the first time in his local, Richard said, everyone on the Factory Zero job is required to wear a portable location device that will emit an alarm if two devices are closer than 6 feet for 10 minutes, long enough for there to be an exposure issue.

"This is PPE. Masks are PPE. These contact tracing badges are PPE," said Local 58 Business Representative Byron Osbern.

And just like masks, it will take a little time to get used to it.

"When the pandemic started, we had a lot of people who thought COVID came through your chin," he joked. "Now, you can walk through a job site and it's, 'Hey brother, put that mask over your nose.'"

While most of the work will shift to the United Auto Workers once production begins, Richard fully expects IBEW members to remain on site. This job, like most in Detroit these days, works on accelerated timelines and commissioning, so troubleshooting and changes will happen as production begins.

"As they shake out production, we will be a mainstay at the plant," Osbern said. "The UAW has their scope of work; when something gets beyond their capacity, whether by cost or numbers, our guys will be there."

The Hummer EV is the highest profile, but there are nearly two dozen new electric models on the way, including an expected but unannounced electric Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra that may be built at Factory Zero.

GM also announced last year that it would invest $300 million to produce an unnamed electric vehicle at the Orion Assembly plant just north of Detroit. The car — not truck — was originally going to be produced outside the U.S. but was brought back home after an agreement with the UAW.

Farther afield, GM is rebuilding the Spring Hill, Tenn., assembly plant to produce the new Cadillac LYRIQ, a fully electric SUV. Nashville Local 429 is doing that work.

"We haven't gotten anything official, but the building trades have a pre-job agreement so they are beginning this fall with about a dozen members," said Business Manager Randy Clark.

Clark isn't sure about the total size of the job, but the last time there was a retooling of the Spring Hill plant about a decade ago, a nearly $800 million expansion, there were five or six contractors with more than 300 members.

Local 429 has about 1,700 members and is preparing for a busy 2021 with the assembly plant, a new MLS soccer stadium, a data center and an Amazon office complex.

"With all this going on this year we hope to blow past 2,000 members," he said. "If we are going to man all this work, we will have to."

Many of GM's electric vehicles will use batteries produced by a joint venture with LG Chem in Lordstown, Ohio, called Ultium Cells.

Work on the new $2.3 billion, 3-million-square-foot plant began in May and construction will continue for at least the next two years, said Warren, Ohio, Local 573 Business Manager Mike Nemkovich.

"I sent the first man there in April and we have about 20 there now," he said. "They said they were manning up in September, but the pandemic has made timelines harder to predict and that was pushed to the end of the year."

Nemkovich said at peak there will be 300 to 500 electricians on the job, and that may come as soon as the summer.

The Ultium plant is next door to GM's former Lordstown plant, which closed in 2019 after 53 years.

"When they shuttered it last year it could have been devastating. Our man-hours reflected that we weren't working there anymore; it was the worst year I can remember. Worse than 2008," he said.

Then Nemkovich got better news when electric truck start-up Lordstown Motors bought the old building and started work. The Lordstown Endurance, their first model aimed primarily at fleet operators, not consumers, is supposed to begin delivery in 2021, but the timeline is not set in stone.

Nemkovich says he has had about 10 members on site since May with more expected as the refit of the old factory moves ahead.

Like Richard, he expects to see significant work from the factories after they begin production and has high hopes that some of the suppliers that moved away when GM Lordstown closed down will return as well.

"I assume that once it takes off, there should be spinoff industrial work we are ready and willing to do," he said.

The other members of the Big Three trail GM's electric truck announcements, but there is too much opportunity and too much competition for them to stay out of the electric truck gold rush.

In September, Ford broke ground on a new manufacturing plant outside of Dearborn, Mich., where it will build an electric version of its extremely popular pickup truck, the F-150.

The new facility, located within the Rouge Complex, will be completed in time to start production in mid-2022.

Again, this will be Local 58 work, Richard said, and will begin in earnest as work on Factory Zero winds down.

Ford also announced a full electric Transit van will begin production at its Kansas City, Mo., assembly plant, located in the jurisdiction of Kansas City Local 124.

"Commercial vehicles are a critical component to our big bet on electrification," Ford chief operating officer Jim Farley said in a statement. "The world is heading toward electrified products and fleet customers are asking for them now."

The Upstarts

By embracing electric vehicles so slowly, however, the Big Three may have left the door open to something not seen for many years: independent domestic car companies.

AMC, the last American car company operating outside the Big Three, closed in 1988. When Rivian launched in 2009, American car brands were disappearing; Oldsmobile, Buick, Mercury, Saturn, Pontiac, Plymouth had joined DeSoto, Hudson and Auburn.

For nearly a decade, Rivian wandered in the wilderness, first focusing on electric self-driving cars, then "ecosystems" involving car sharing. It was one of many electric car companies that didn't have a factory and didn't actually make many cars.

Then, in 2017, it bought a shuttered Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Ill.

The factory had been built in 1988 — the last boom time in Normal that Bloomington, Ill., Local 197 Business Manager Mike Raikes could remember.

Normal dubbed itself "EV Town" when Mitsubishi had plans to start producing electric vehicles at the Normal plant. Local 197 members built 50 charging stations around the city, but it never led to much, Raikes said.

Rivian bought the factory a year after it closed, netting $150 million in tax abatements in the process. Then it demolished everything to the bare walls and held a splashy reveal of what it had decided to produce: the R1T truck and R1S SUV electric.

And, again, Raikes said, there was not very much to get excited about. The problem with EVs is that there are so many problems.

But like most things, nearly every problem finds a solution when money is applied.

Unlike most of its competitors, Rivian found investors. In February of 2019, Amazon plunked down $700 million and signed a contract for the delivery of 100,000 electric delivery vans in the next 10 years.

Rivian's prototype integrated battery, engine and suspension, called a "skateboard," found a fan in Ford, which invested $500 million in the company. Cox Automotive, owner of and Kelley Blue Book, added another $1.2 billion.

Total investment over the last three years has topped $3 billion.

Then the calls began coming in to Local 197 and members started going out to the Rivian site just over a year ago.

"The last time we had a project this big was when State Farm was building a new headquarters back in the late '90s before I was in the local," Raikes said. "We haven't seen anything like this in my whole career."

When the pandemic hit, Local 197 had six members on site building out the show line for prototype production.

Then everything seemed to slow and the promise seemed like it was only that.

But on Oct. 8, Rivian rolled out the foundation of its business, the order that makes the risk of a new brand selling an unproven kind of vehicle straight to consumers plausible. It introduced the prototype of the all-electric Amazon delivery van.

By the fall, work was well underway. There were 150 journeyman wiremen and apprentices on site, working on conveyor projects and bus duct work. Another 120 were set to arrive mid-November and stay on through the spring.

"It's going like gangbusters," Raikes said.

Later will come the substation, then production on the SUV and pickup will begin and then the final line to make the delivery vans: 10,000 in the first two years.

"Our contract is to get those lines ready, and they will be ready," he said.

GM, Ford and Rivian may be the farthest along, but they are far from alone.

The highest-profile electric truck claim probably goes to Tesla's Cybertruck, which was revealed to great fanfare in 2019.

Production isn't expected to begin until late 2021.

The company announced that its futuristic interpretation of a pickup truck and its electric semi-truck will be made in the Gigafactory Texas. Construction on the plant began in the summer of 2020 in the jurisdiction of Austin Local 520.

Arizona-based start-up Nikola Motors broke ground on a $600 million assembly plant in Coolidge, north of Phoenix, in July.

The company will make the Tre, an electric "cab-over" truck, and the long-haul Nikola Two, which will have joint hydrogen fuel cells and batteries.

As of early-November Phoenix Local 640 had no members working on the project, but construction will continue for the next two years.

If all goes according to its plan, the consumer-focused Nikola Badger SUV will go into production, though the company says it will likely be sold under the badge of another company.

"Electric cars are the future and that is good news for the IBEW," said International President Lonnie Stephenson. "But it is important to understand this goes far beyond the assembly lines."

Electrifying Transport and IBEW Jobs

Stephenson pointed to vast work that will be required to prepare North America's power grid for the influx of electric vehicles. "Those lines, the substations, the power houses, will be needed more with every electric car sold. The IBEW is the union of the future because the future is electrified," he said.

The scope of work goes far beyond the walls of the assembly plants.

"It all comes back to the grid, and that's ours," Stephenson said. "We are a diverse brotherhood, but our foundation is building and maintaining electric power across North America. Connecting the entire transportation infrastructure to the grid will keep IBEW members busy for decades."

Electric cars and trucks are only the start, he said. There are thousands of ports and airports, millions of vehicles in corporate fleets, taxis and long-haul trucks.

"If we do this right and make sure green jobs are union jobs, every single charging station represents an opportunity," said Construction and Maintenance Department Director Mike Richard.

In California, for example, PG&E, Edison and SDGE all hired signatory contractors to build their public charging facilities and they are maintained either by utility workers or those same contractors.

Utilities also have the resources to build out residential charging stations affordably, said Utility Department Director Donnie Colston, with a common standard that works well with the grid and all brands of cars. Many utilities will need state public utility commission approval to do so, and the backing of labor is often necessary to get it.

"There are so many wins here for the IBEW, but let's not forget something very important: these trucks are making electric vehicles cool," Stephenson said. "The F-150 prototype towed a million pounds. The Hummer EV has 1,000 horsepower. They're American-made and many of them union-built, and every time you plug one in, you're creating jobs for IBEW members. What could be better than that?"





Automakers are investing tens of billions of dollars to make the pickups and SUVs consumers want with the electric powertrains the environment needs, including a billion-dollar make-over of Ford's Dearborn, Mich., Rouge Plant (top), which will make an all-electric version of the best-selling vehicle in America for nearly 30 years, the F-150 (top middle). Major competition will come from the Hummer EV (bottom middle) and newcomer Rivian's R1T (above.)



Two years ago, GM announced plans to shutter its Detroit Hamtramck assembly plant; it reversed course this year, announcing a $2.2 billion investment to build the new Hummer EV and a new name: Factory Zero. Detroit Local 58 already will have 300-500 members there starting this summer.


Millions of electric vehicles will need millions of chargers to connect to the power grid, like this one built by members of St. Louis Local 1.