Autoworkers ready to strike for EV future

Autoworkers ready to strike for EV future

The EV Revolution and the Fight for Worker Rights in the Auto Industry: A Just Transition

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The EV revolution is in full swing, with electric vehicles becoming increasingly popular among consumers. As the industry shifts towards greener alternatives, however, the fate of autoworkers and their rights have become the subject of intense negotiations. The United Auto Workers (UAW) union, representing 150,000 autoworkers, is currently in talks with the Big Three US automakers – Ford, GM, and Stellantis – as their contract expires. This negotiation is not only about wages and benefits but also about the future of US automotive jobs in the era of electric vehicles.

One example that highlights the challenges faced by workers in the EV supply chain is the Ultium Cells plant in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley. The joint venture between General Motors and South Korea’s LG promised a new era of job opportunities in the field of electric vehicle battery-cell production. However, the reality for workers like Ethan Surgenavic has been far from ideal. Surgenavic, an HVAC technician at the plant, had high hopes of being part of the EV revolution but soon realized the shortcomings. The low wages were insufficient to attract qualified workers, and safety concerns raised by employees led to fines and ongoing investigations from US federal regulators. The shiny green EV revolution wasn’t living up to its promises for workers.

The situation at Ultium Cells is just one example of the challenges faced by autoworkers in the transition to electric vehicles. However, despite the inherent tension between workers and the push for climate change policies, there is a growing recognition of the need for a just transition. The concept of a just transition, developed by labor leader Tony Mazzocchi in the 1990s and mentioned in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, aims to ensure that workers and their communities are not left behind in the shift away from unsustainable industries. By creating a more just society overall, the transition to sustainable industries can be accelerated.

The automakers argue that controlling labor costs is necessary for investment in electrification and to compete with non-union competitors both domestically and overseas. However, the UAW contends that its members deserve their fair share of the companies’ soaring profits. Their demands include significant raises, restored pensions, and better working conditions, especially for the next generation of EV workers.

Adding to the complexity of the issue is the expansion of the EV supply chain through joint ventures with foreign companies. Just like GM, Ford, and Stellantis, other automakers have partnered with overseas electronics companies to establish their own EV battery ventures. The concern is that these new businesses offer lower wages and inferior safety protections compared to established unionized auto plants. The recent interim agreement at Ultium Cells, which raised wages by an average of 25 percent, is viewed as a step forward. However, the UAW’s goal is to bring battery plants up to the same standards as the Big Three automakers, acknowledging the importance of a strong contract in reversing the decline in union membership and securing better working conditions for employees.

The future of US automotive jobs depends on significant growth in domestic EV production. If the government realizes its goal of EVs representing 50 percent of new car sales by 2030, without policy interventions, the industry might lose 75,000 jobs. On the other hand, a significant increase in the US market share of EV assembly and production could add 150,000 jobs. However, the majority of these jobs are unlikely to be in traditional UAW-unionized plants. Foreign transplants and EV companies like Tesla have resisted unionization, creating a challenge for the UAW to organize workers in the new EV landscape.

Policy measures such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which offers loans and tax breaks for onshoring and reshoring EV manufacturing jobs, can provide resources to help automakers build the vehicles of the future. However, without labor standards or wage requirements for the recipients of these funds, there is a risk of job quality being driven down in the name of progress. Concerns about the impact on workers in the transition to a greener economy are supported by evidence from previous industrial shifts. Globalization and deindustrialization led to job losses and lower-quality work for many workers. To address this, just transition initiatives have been embraced by some governments and states. These initiatives aim to stimulate investment in renewables while ensuring good jobs and specific programs to assist transitioning workers in finding new employment opportunities.

In the midst of negotiations between the UAW and the Big Three automakers, the fight for worker rights and a just transition in the auto industry has become existential for the union. The decline in union membership over the years adds to the urgency of securing better conditions for autoworkers. The EV revolution presents an opportunity for the industry, but it should not come at the expense of workers’ rights and livelihoods. As the transition continues, striking a balance between sustainable practices and fair treatment for workers will be crucial for the future of US automotive jobs.