IBEW Gains Work Building EV-charging Infrastructure, But EVs Threaten Teamster Jobs. The Two Unions Are Treading Carefully.

By Robert Fulton, Contributing Writer

On the surface, the benefits associated with expanding electric vehicle (EV)-charging infrastructure ought to be plainly evident.

Building out thousands of charging stations should provide innumerable good jobs for the trades, with electricians picking up a large chunk of the work. EVs have proven so popular among consumers that EV manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand, which indicates that this industry’s best and brightest days are still ahead. EVs also happen to be a big plus for the environment.

All good things, right?

Well, yes. But as is the case with many big-picture industry sea changes, the devil is in the details. And in the world of EVs, the devil is an autonomous little scamp.

Autonomous Vehicle or Trojan Horse?

It’s impossible to ignore the prevailing Venn diagram that has developed over the past decade or so: EVs can exist without being autonomous (a.k.a. self-driving), but autonomous vehicles can’t exist without also being EVs.

This distinction is important to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). Its leadership has attempted to make clear that the teamsters do not stand against EVs and their charging infrastucture. They will not, however, sit idly by while the deployment of autonomous vehicles threatens to destroy their livelihoods.

To understand where they’re coming from, we have to take a bigger-picture look at what’s going on here.

Unlike the last mega-scale project that transformed U.S. transportation — the Interstate Highway System — the autonomous vehicle revolution isn’t being planned and administered by elected officials and U.S. government workers. Instead, two private companies largely dominate the research, development, and implementation of autonomous vehicles on our streets, and both of those companies are steeped in the ethically dubious “Move fast and break things” startup culture.

The first is notoriously union-hostile Google corporate parent Alphabet. It owns Waymo, formerly known as the Google self-driving car project. The second company is General Motors, acting through its San Francisco-based subsidiary Cruise. That’s an autonomous vehicle tech development firm and experimental “robotaxi” dispatcher that GM acquired over seven years ago.

Cruise is now pushing for exclusive access to EV charging spaces in the City’s public garages to ostensibly charge its fleet of robotaxis. Meanwhile, Waymo is looking to acquire private garage space in key SF locations.

These moves are red flags for the teamsters. Why? Teamsters allege that with their efforts to secure garage space and therefore EV-charging capacity, Google and GM are attempting to lay the groundwork to take over last-mile delivery service from shippers such as UPS. Approximately 350,000 drivers, package handlers, and clerks who work for UPS are organized under the IBT.

“Big corporations want to use autonomous vehicles for one reason only,” said Peter Finn, vice-president of IBT’s Western Region and a longtime Teamsters Local 856 member. “That’s to eliminate jobs because it lowers labor costs and boosts their profits.”

The union has so far been successful in pushing back thanks to the lobbying efforts of Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents more than 100,000 regional members. Last year, the SF Board of Supervisors issued a moratorium on any parcel delivery development in District 10. That’s where non-union Amazon, which often contracts out its delivery services to private drivers and could stand to gain significantly from autonomous last-mile delivery, has been looking to develop a massive warehouse on a 5.8-acre site it owns at 900 7th Street.

The teamsters are seeking a six-month extension of the moratorium.

After regional teamsters again flexed their lobbying muscle last month, the board voted unanimously to turn down a conditional use authorization that had been awarded by the SF Planning Commission to Waymo for a project at 301 Toland Street. Waymo wanted access to a private parking garage there, according to a May 23 article in The San Francisco Standard.

Teamsters allege the Toland Street garage would essentially be used as a docking station for Waymo’s robotaxi fleet in the specific interest of building out capacity for automated last-mile delivery. Robotaxis could be used to gather data for potential future delivery service, or the robotaxis themselves could be used with an untrained warehouse worker on board to deliver packages.

Ultimately, fully automated unmanned delivery trucks could replace the taxis in the charging spots.

None of this sits well with Finn.

“It’s obviously a direct threat on teamster jobs, ranging from long-haul trucking to last-mile delivery,” he said.

To a lesser extent, autonomous vehicles threaten garage jobs, which can also be teamsters-represented.

The teamsters have taken their fight against free-reign autonomous delivery services to Sacramento. California State Assembly Bill 316 would require a trained human operator in autonomous vehicles weighing over 10,000 pounds.

The legislation recently passed 69 to 4 and is headed to the State Senate.

Better Living Through EV Infrastructure?

Meanwhile, the expanding universe of EV charging stations is a boon for electricians. John Doherty, business manager of IBEW Local 6, said his local engaged with San Francisco-based EV-charging network builder Terawatt Infrastructure to guarantee the installation and maintenance of Terawatt’s planned EV-charging parking spots would be a union job.

However, Doherty is concerned that labor might repeat the same mistakes it made with another new technology: photovoltaic solar installation.

“Being an EV-charging station installer would not be a standalone career that could provide the worker with enough portable skills necessary to be successful in the electrical industry,” he said. “We had the same warnings back when solar installers were bantered about. In the end [...], solar panel installation remains a low-paying career with little to no portability.

“The IBEW is not taking a passive approach to this work and learned its lesson from when it underestimated the expansion of residential solar installations.”

Despite his reservations, Doherty believes the expansion of EV-charging infrastructure is a boon for all IBEW members.

“With billions in federal incentives entering the market, we see a great opportunity to capture work both in the commercial and residential sectors,” he said.

As for the teamsters, they were able to secure language ensuring that any spots in Terawatt’s parking garage would not be used for autonomous parcel delivery.

“Once you promise you’re not going to cut our jobs and you promise no partial delivery, then [we’re] good with it,” said Teamsters Local 665’s Principal Officer Tony Delorio, referring to the Terawatt project. “They put that in writing, so that’s why we moved forward with that project.”

Doherty understands the teamsters’ position of not providing autonomous vehicles free reign.

“We can’t let our work pass us by, but where we believe that there is synergy between our arguments, we work together as best we can,” Doherty said.

Alex Lantsberg, research and advocacy director with the San Francisco Electrical Construction Industry, said more is needed to ensure safety, good jobs, and an autonomous future that doesn’t leave anyone behind.

“There’s a lot more work to do, and there’s a lot more collaboration to be done,” he said.

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