United Auto Workers president Shawn Fein (center) says the shift to EVs should not be a “race to the bottom.” (Photo: Informed Images, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Striking auto workers won higher wages, better benefits, and more ability to unionize electric vehicle battery plants that supply the “Big Three” US automakers. Inside Climate News Reporter Dan Gearino joins Host Jenni Doering to unpack what the strike’s outcome could mean for the growing electric vehicle industry, its workers, and the public.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.
DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering.
In mid-September the United Auto Workers began striking for better wages and benefits from auto companies that they say have not given employees their fair share of soaring overall profits. And after a little over a month on the picket lines that saw a visit from President Biden, the union won a major settlement with the Big Three US automakers. That’s General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis, the parent company of Jeep and Chrysler. The settlement of the strike raises questions about what these new contracts mean for the growing electric vehicle industry, its workers, and the public. Joining us from Columbus, Ohio is Dan Gearino, a reporter with our media partner Inside Climate News. Dan, welcome back to Living on Earth!
GEARINO: Good to be here.
DOERING: So what did the UAW get the automakers to agree with?
GEARINO: UAW got some pretty substantial wage and benefit increases. All three of these automakers got pay raises. The GM pay raise is 25% increase in base wages through 2028. If you’re a veteran employee, we’re talking about hourly pay of more than $40 an hour. Newer employees, we’re talking about $30 an hour. So these are just kind of rock solid, middle class wages. They also got some concessions that will enable the union to represent workers at battery plants, either by automatically making some of those employees members of the union or easing the path to union membership at some of the plants.
DOERING: And why were electric vehicles and batteries an important focus of these negotiations?
GEARINO: Electric vehicles are the future of this industry. There’s a lot of debate about how soon that future is going to be here in terms of when electric vehicles become, you know, even the majority of the vehicles on the road. But just about anyone you talk to, will say there is a point in the future in which we largely transition away from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles. And with that shift, a lot of the jobs in the automotive industry are going to be in battery plants, places where you’re manufacturing and assembling the batteries that go in these vehicles. So if you’re the Auto Workers Union, you want to be representing those workers. And the way that the industry has kind of developed thus far is that several of the unionized auto manufacturers are building batteries through joint ventures with non union companies. And the UAW really wanted to basically be given a fair shot to try to represent those workers, and that they are getting that in this contract. So what they’re hoping to do is by representing workers at some battery plants, the battery plants that are affiliated with these kind of Detroit three automakers, they can then go to other battery plants that maybe aren’t affiliated with those and say, hey, look at what we did at this battery plant, maybe in the next state over, look at how much better their job security is, how much better their benefits and wages are. So it can create this positive momentum that can lead to this industry having more union membership, but then also having just higher pay and benefits across the industry.
DOERING: Right, good jobs, instead of having a choice between good versus green jobs.
GEARINO: Yes, and that is this major point that the UAW president has been making throughout this strike, that the shift to EVs should not be a race to the bottom in which the new jobs are not as good as the jobs that are going away. And this is a really important issue, just more broadly, in the transition to clean energy. If the jobs that are the backbone of our economy in a lot of communities are going away, and they’re being replaced with jobs that are less stable, that don’t pay as well, this is bad for local economies, but it’s also something that really undercuts the political consensus for the energy transition. It leads to some real resentment.
DOERING: So it seems like the United Auto Workers union has made some positive steps in the short run for the workers they want to represent, namely better wages and easier paths to unionization. But in the long run, what effects might the strike’s outcome have on the electric vehicle market?
GEARINO: It’s clear that this contract is just step one. And that if there isn’t a solid step two, the long term effects here will not be as helpful for these workers and for the industry. So what I mean by that, the UAW wants to use this contract as momentum to be able to organize other automakers, other plants, including automakers and plants that are not affiliated with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. Now, that’s really hard. They’ve tried that before. They’ve said they were going to do that before. But if they can do that, that could lead to this increase in wages and benefits across this industry in the United States. But if they can’t do that, then what we have is a contract that runs through 2028 in which the costs of labor for those three companies has now gone up. And their competitors are like Tesla, Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen, who have non-union workforces, and lower labor costs. And it creates this competitive disadvantage unless you can find a way to kind of, you know, raise those boats for those other automakers in terms of their pay and benefits.
DOERING: So looking forward, what actions could the UAW take to try and strike that balance between creating a competitive domestic EV market and still maintaining quality jobs for that market’s employees?
GEARINO: So in the bigger picture, what we need to find is some sort of a balance between having kind of a robust economy in which these workers are paid a solid middle class wage and vehicles are affordable, because increasing the labor costs increases the cost of the product. And to say this is a difficult balance to strike is an understatement. So as we look ahead, we need to see what happens at some of those other automakers because these companies are already having trouble with selling vehicles at an affordable price point for most consumers. Cars have gotten super expensive. EVs are expensive. And this is a real issue going forward. So you have a new contract that’s going to directly or indirectly increase costs for vehicles from some companies. So it’ll be interesting to see what the other companies do in response to this. But yeah, there’s this kind of complex set of variables at play here, where you need to be able to sell cars, people need to be able to afford cars, but the people who put the cars together need to be able to make a living wage, and kind of how this shakes out and how good those jobs are, will have a lot to do with how we perceive this transition to clean energy. Is this a good thing? Is this a good thing for my next door neighbor? Is this a good thing for me? And it’s tough, these are all incredibly complex and difficult issues.
DOERING: Dan Gearino covers the clean energy economy with our partner, Inside Climate News. Thank you so much, Dan.
GEARINO: Thank you.
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