August 30th 2023.
As the clock winds down to a potential historic strike in September, the United Auto Workers has taken a determined stance in its negotiations with America’s Big Three automakers. There is a feeling that the industry’s prosperity has not been shared with the 350,000 unionized auto workers, and this sentiment has only been further strengthened by the skyrocketing salaries of top executives like Mary Barra at General Motors.
The union is also facing a new challenge as the Big Three look to build more plants in non-union states in order to meet the growing demand for electric vehicles. The UAW worries that lower wages, fewer protections for workers, and diminished retirement security are likely to be the result of the move.
Unfortunately, the union’s stance on this issue has been mired in controversy. To the dismay of many, the UAW has been aligned with the executives they oppose in resisting the clean energy transition. This is an especially embarrassing move given the union’s historical commitment to environmental causes and its understanding that the electric future is inevitable.
The move has been further compounded by the Big Three’s attempts to copy Tesla’s strategy of side-stepping state dealer franchise laws by arguing that electric cars are different than gasoline-powered ones. This would result in a permanent recasting of relations with both dealers and the union.
The UAW made their feelings of this strategy clear when they refused to endorse President Joe Biden’s re-election bid. This was after the White House announced a loan guarantee to Ford Motor Co. to build a battery and EV plant in a right-to-work state with no language requiring union involvement.
The UAW is concerned about the net loss of jobs that is likely to come with the electric future. However, they have been very clear that the switch cannot become a race to the bottom. They have accused the federal government of actively funding this race with billions of public money.
It is easy to forget that the very first Earth Day was sponsored and funded in part by the UAW and its founder, Walter P. Reuther. Under Reuther’s leadership, the UAW became a champion of curbing water and air pollution and promoting sustainability. This demonstrates the union’s commitment to the environment and the potential of the electric future.
As the United Auto Workers (UAW) prepares for a potential strike in September, their lead negotiators are taking a hard line in negotiations with America’s Big Three automakers. This is due to the fact that despite the companies’ outsized profits and the generous rewards top executives have seen, the 350,000 unionized auto workers have largely been left out of the rewards.
For example, GM CEO Mary Barra's salary has seen a huge increase in recent years, earning $29 million in 2022 and over $200 million over the last nine years. This increase in salary is in stark contrast to the two-tier wage system employed by auto workers which pays new hires significantly less than those hired before the 2009 bankruptcy and bailout.
The UAW is also becoming increasingly alarmed at the emergence of another two-tier system, where the Big Three are building new plants to supply the anticipated influx of electric vehicles in non-union states further south. This could lead to lower wages, fewer protections for workers, and reduced retirement security for the many new employees.
Yet, the UAW finds itself in an odd position of doing the industry’s “dirty work” by aligning itself with executives in resisting the clean energy transition. This is a contradiction to the union’s own environmentalist roots and understanding that an electric future is inevitable. The Big Three are attempting to replicate Tesla’s strategy of bypassing state dealer franchise laws in order to make a profit from direct-to-consumer sales of electric vehicles.
The UAW’s refusal to endorse President Joe Biden’s re-election bid demonstrated their ambivalence towards the clean energy transition. This was despite the fact that the White House’s $9.2 billion Department of Energy loan guarantee to Ford Motor Co. to build a battery plant in Tennessee did not contain language requiring Ford to ensure union involvement.
UAW officials worry that the Big Three will use electric vehicles and joint ventures to bypass the union and hire lower-paid, non-union workers. This is a fear that has been echoed by President Trump in a 3-minute campaign video, where he said “I hope United Auto Workers is listening to this, because I think you better endorse Trump because I’m going to grow your business and they are destroying your business.”
While the UAW is realistic about the fact that electric cars require fewer workers to build than those with an internal combustion engine, they claim that their antipathy lies with the non-union aspect of the new battery and EV factories, not the technology itself. UAW president Shawn Fain has stated that “the switch to electric engine jobs, battery production and other EV manufacturing cannot become a race to the bottom.”
This strong stance on clean energy transition is a reminder of the union’s historically pro-Democrat roots. It was the UAW and its leader Walter P. Reuther who sponsored and funded the very first Earth Day in 1970. Reuther had pushed the UAW to actively engage in efforts to reduce water and air pollution and promote sustainability.
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