MANSFIELD — Two hours after the week-old United Auto Workers strike expanded to dozens more plants around the country, including a Stellantis parts distribution center in this quiet suburb, Senator Elizabeth Warren showed up outside its gates in a red sweater — the workers’ signature color — with boxes of doughnuts in hand.
“I wish you didn’t have to be out here. I know you’d like to be doing your work, but only if they are going to give you a fair contract,” she said, before picking up a sign and joining the picket line.
Left unsaid, however, was that one of the issues at the heart of the strike is directly connected to a policy that she and most other Democrats, including President Biden, have championed: accelerating the transition to electric vehicles, which could turn the auto industry — and the number of jobs and kinds of skills needed to be part of it — upside down.
“Everything is up in the air as far as how it’s going to be handled, and what the job is going to entail. We’re kind of left in the clouds,” said Edward Gato, a self-described Republican who is a packer at the Mansfield facility and is worried there might be fewer parts to distribute in the era of electric vehicles. “It’s a little scary.”
The strike began at midnight on Sept. 15 and began with three plants owned by the Big Three automakers: a Ford plant in Michigan, a GM plant in Missouri, and a plant owned by Stellantis, which owns Chrysler, in Ohio. On Friday, it expanded to 38 more plants owned by Stellantis and GM, including the distribution center in Mansfield.
The union is pushing for significant raises in an era of skyrocketing auto profits and executive compensation, and a restoration of cost-of-living allowances and other benefits workers gave up when the industry was on life support amid the crises of 2008. Aiming their ire at management, workers on the picket line loudly and repeatedly called for an end to “corporate greed.”
But, in a twist that former president Donald Trump and other Republicans are eager to exploit, workers on picket lines across the country are also accusing Biden and other Democrats of pushing for a transition to electric vehicles without creating more safeguards for labor.
“He wants to get green energy on the streets quicker, but in doing so, we don’t want to leave the middle class behind,” said Matt Wegener, 48, a millwright at a Ford plant in Wayne, Mich., who supports Biden but said he should have done more to support labor in the transition.
Biden will make the historic move of visiting the workers on Tuesday.
“It’s time for a win-win agreement that keeps American auto manufacturing thriving with well-paid UAW jobs,” the president posted on the social media site X on Friday.
Trump plans to visit striking workers in Michigan the following day, where he is sure to repeat his accusations that Biden has eroded American jobs by promoting green energy. Other Republican presidential candidates who have long opposed reckoning with climate change are piling on, too.
“Driving people away from gasoline-powered vehicles, any auto worker that’s paying attention would know that’s not in their long-term interest,” said former vice president Mike Pence earlier this week.
Overall, jobs in the manufacturing sector of the auto industry have grown to 1.07 million during the Biden administration, higher than under Trump, according to US Labor Department statistics.
But experts note the production of electric cars fundamentally requires less labor than that of cars with internal combustion engines, because there are fewer parts. Marick Masters, a professor of business at Wayne State University, said that some 30,000 internal combustion engine jobs could ultimately be lost.
The situation is an example of how two key pillars of the Democratic Party — labor unions and environmental activists — are not always perfectly aligned.
“It’s really important that we don’t say it’s workers versus the environment,” said Mijin Cha, an assistant professor in the environmental studies department at the University of California Santa Cruz. “They’re not against an electric vehicle transition; they just don’t want to be left behind.”
A key complaint by the unions is that the Biden administration gave billions in loans and incentives to entice automakers to produce more electric vehicles, but failed to couple those funds with what they consider to be adequate protections for workers. Much of the big three companies’ electric vehicle manufacturing is being done through “joint ventures” with outside companies that are not governed by union contracts.
In May, UAW president Shawn Fain brought these issues up when he announced the union was withholding an endorsement of Biden after backing him in 2020.
“The federal government is pouring billions into the electric vehicle transition, with no strings attached and no commitment to workers. The EV transition is at serious risk of becoming a race to the bottom,” Fain said in a memo at the time.
A study by the Brookings Institution found that the South, where many states have strong anti-union laws, has disproportionately benefited from the Biden administration’s industrial investments, which have flowed from laws such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The study found 62 percent of these investments in Southern states are in clean energy technology and electric vehicle and battery manufacturing.
That is something even some Democrats are criticizing.
“This idea of having billions of dollars go to Alabama or Tennessee, in non-union states was a colossal mess-up, it should never have happened,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who visited picket lines in Michigan and Ohio earlier this week. “We should have had safeguards in there.”
“The Trump narrative that somehow electric vehicle manufacturing is causing the loss of jobs is wrong,” Khanna added. “A fair criticism … is that the funding for this industry needs to be in places that allow the right to organize and be under union contracts.”
He and other Democrats say they are now pushing for more electric vehicle manufacturing to be done with union labor. They hope every battery manufacturing plant run by the Big Three will come under the union contract. (Tesla, which is currently the world’s largest manufacturer of electric vehicles, does not use union labor.)
In August, the Biden administration announced a $15.5 billion program to retool existing auto factories to produce green vehicles and batteries and which gives more weight to projects that retain collective bargaining agreements or high-wage workers.
“It’s disruption, but growth,” Warren said of electric vehicles. “For the current kinds of cars we make and for the EVs. If we have workers who are participating in that from the beginning, that’s good for everybody. Unions change over time.”
Mantiely Sayeh, another striking worker in Mansfield, said he hopes members of Congress have more conversations about the long-term ramifications of electric vehicles on the auto industry.
“We are not set up to do it,” said Sayeh, who has been working in shipping at the facility for a decade. “Hopefully when we go through these negotiations, they can actually sit down and we’ll see what kind of plan they have.”
Masters said Congress could help bolster unions in the transition by passing tax credits that support the purchase of electric vehicles from unionized labor and taking other steps, although it is not clear that the Republican-controlled House would take such a step.
“They can move the needle forward if they want to,” he said.
Jim Puzzanghera of the Globe staff contributed to this report.