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labor and environment

Automakers’ Electric Vehicle Lie

By Lucy Dean Stockton - The Lever, September 27, 2023

This story was produced in collaboration with The Nation.

The United Auto Workers are entering their third week of the first-ever simultaneous strike against the three big automakers, and for the first time, a sitting US president, Joe Biden, joined them on the picket line. Executives at General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis are pushing back on worker demands by invoking the climate crisis. They say it is impossible to give workers what they want while also making a swift transition to manufacturing electric vehicles.

On September 14, Ford’s CEO Jim Farley said that the union’s demands — higher wages, better hours, an end to tiered employment, and guaranteed job security in a green energy transition — could send the company into bankruptcy. Mary Barra, the CEO of GM, said that the union’s demands are “unrealistic” and would make GM less competitive. Major outlets have echoed these claims, even arguing that the UAW’s strike will harm the environment by stalling EV production.

But these corporate arguments are undercut by the fact that these companies have authorized billions in stock buybacks, special dividends, and executive compensation. The automakers could have invested that money into worker compensation and electric vehicles, but instead steered it toward stockholders.

The UAW Strike Is Bringing Out Republicans’ True Anti-Worker Colors

By Luke Savage - Jacobin, September 20, 2023

From the moment it was declared, the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) strike has presented Republican politicians with something of a dilemma. The immediate reason is that public opinion is firmly and overwhelmingly behind the union and its demands. More broadly, the GOP has in recent years gone to great pains to rebrand itself as a party of the working class. That’s always been nonsense, of course, and the rhetorical gymnastics offered by leading conservative politicians over the past few days is an excellent case in point.

Quick out of the gate was Missouri senator Josh Hawley, who remarked, “Auto workers deserve a raise — and they deserve to have their jobs protected from Joe Biden’s stupid climate mandates that are destroying the US auto industry and making China rich.” As media critic Adam Johnson pointed out, Hawley’s superficially pro-worker statement contained a number of revealing evasions and omissions. Most obviously, it referred to autoworkers without actually mentioning their union. And while Hawley did endorse an unspecified raise, that position is by no means in tension with the current posture of management at the Big Three automakers — all of whom have offered raises significantly below what the union has demanded.

Particularly emblematic, and equally disingenuous, was Hawley’s attempt to represent the strike as a regrettable by-product of the Biden administration’s (rather moderate) green policies while invoking geopolitical rivalry with China. Donald Trump, for his part, has triangulated in much the same way: issuing statements vaguely supportive of “autoworkers” while openly attacking the UAW and misrepresenting the dispute as a case of liberal green quackery run amok. Florida governor Ron DeSantis and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum both offered variations on the same themes, with the former blaming “Biden’s push for electric vehicles” and the latter commenting, “The union workers are going, wow, we’re gonna switch to all EVs, we’re going to have less jobs, we’re gonna switch to all EVs, you know, we’re shipping our future and you are going to be dependent on China for our transportation needs.”

Statements like these all express the rather challenging predicament of right-wing politicians keen to brandish their workerist credentials without actually supporting the aspirations of workers themselves. Needless to say, the act is unconvincing.

How the shift to electric vehicles is fueling the UAW strike

By Akielly Hu and Katie Myers - Grist, September 18, 2023

At the stroke of midnight on Friday, in three automotive factories across the Rust Belt, nightshift workers left their posts and poured out onto the streets to join whistling, cheering crowds. TV news footage from the night showed picketers intermingled with cars honking in support as R&B blared from sound systems on the sidewalks in front of the factory gates. For the first time in history, the United Auto Workers union, or UAW, initiated a strike targeting all of the Big Three automakers: Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, which owns brands like Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge. 

The strike marks a breaking point after months of negotiations failed to result in a deal to renew the union’s contract with Big Three automakers, which expired on Friday. For now, the strike covers only 13,000 workers at a General Motors plant in Wentzville, Missouri; a Stellantis plant in Toledo, Ohio; and a Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan. But the three closures could be just the beginning. UAW president Shawn Fain has warned that all 146,000 union workers are ready to strike at a moment’s notice. “If we need to go all out, we will,” said Fain Thursday night on Facebook Live. “Everything is on the table.” 

If the work stoppage goes on for more than 10 days, analysts estimate it could cost automakers over $1 billion and hurt plans to push new electric vehicles onto the market.

EVs, and what they mean for the future of union labor in the automotive sector, loom large over the picket line. Automakers say meeting the union’s demands would threaten their ability to compete with nonunionized EV producers like Tesla, adding burdensome labor costs just as they’re making expensive investments in EVs. Workers, meanwhile, worry that billions in EV investments aren’t translating into good-paying, union jobs.

The Big 3 Want You To Think Striking Workers and the Climate Are at Odds. They’re Not

By Sarah Lazare - In These Times, September 18, 2023

In recent media coverage of the United Auto Workers’ stand-up strike against the Big Three car makers — Stellantis, Ford and General Motors — a false narrative is circulating: that the walkout is in conflict with the urgent need to mitigate climate change. The basic argument is that if wages and benefits were to improve, this would make the transition to electric vehicle manufacturing unprofitable, and would therefore imperil a centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s environmental policy. 

“Union demands would force Ford to scrap its investments in electric vehicles, Jim Farley, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview on Friday,” reporter Jack Ewing wrote for the New York Times on September 16. Ewing goes on to quote Farley saying, ​“We want to actually have a conversation about a sustainable future, not one that forces us to choose between going out of business and rewarding our workers.”

In an article that ran on September 13, the day before the strike began, New York Times reporter Noam Scheiber put it similarly: ​“The companies say that even if they could raise wages for battery workers to the rate set under their national U.A.W. contract, doing so could make them uncompetitive with nonunion rivals, like Tesla.”

These reports echo the talking points of the same companies that have had a direct hand in slowing the transition to electric vehicles. All of the Big Three automakers are members of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group, that lobbied against a proposed Biden administration rule to require that two out of three new passenger cars sold in the United States are electric vehicles by 2032. 

These companies have also played a key role in fueling climate change. Scientists at Ford and General Motors knew about the impacts of global warming as early as the 1960s, yet the companies intensified their fossil-fuel heavy business model, turning to the manufacturing of trucks and SUVs over the ensuing decades while donating ​“hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups that cast doubt on the scientific consensus on global warming,” as revealed in a 2020 investigation by E&E News. Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler (now owned by Stellantis) are among ​“the strongest opponents of regulations to help countries meet the 1.5C warming limit in the Paris agreement,” according to an investigation by The Guardian published in 2019.

Yet this vital context is largely being left out of ongoing coverage and, instead, companies’ supposed concerns about the environment are being reported at face value.

Green Groups Stand With UAW in Fight to Protect Autoworkers During EV Transition

By Julia Conley - Common Dreams, September 13, 2023

On the eve of the expiration of the United Auto Workers union's contract and a potential strike Wednesday, climate action groups were among more than 100 civil society organizations on Wednesday calling on the "Big Three" automakers to ensure that a new contract protects workers as the U.S. transitions toward making electric vehicles.

Groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Citizen, Sierra Club, and Earthjustice were among those expressing solidarity with nearly 150,000 union autoworkers who are demanding that employees of electric vehicle battery plants being developed by Stellantis, Ford, and General Motors are paid fairly—reflecting the record profits the automakers have reported in recent years.

"Within the next few years—the span of this next contract—lies humanity's last chance to navigate a transition away from fossil fuels, including away from combustion engines," wrote the groups in an open letter. "With that shift comes an opportunity for workers in the United States to benefit from a revival of new manufacturing, including electric vehicles (EVs) and collective transportation like buses and trains, as a part of the renewable energy revolution."

"This transition must center workers and communities, especially those who have powered our economy through the fossil fuel era, and be a vehicle for economic and racial justice," they added. "We are putting you on notice: Corporate greed and shareholder profits must never again be put before safe, good-paying union jobs, clean air and water, and a livable future."

Oil Change International stands in solidarity with workers demanding better protection from record heat

By Andy Rowell - Oil Change International, July 26, 2023

As deadly fires continue to rage out of control, scientists have confirmed that the record temperatures experienced in Europe, China and the United States are due to human-induced climate change.

They are due to the fossil fuel industry and its decades-long campaign to deny the scientific evidence, spread doubt, and continue drilling. Yes, it is that simple.

And now, workers in the U.S. have had enough of working in extreme temperatures without adequate protections and breaks. And yesterday, the Teamsters Union reached a historic deal with the courier company, UPS, over worker rights and worker protections, including over heat.

Building alliances between Labour and the Climate Justice movements

Will the US have the workforce it needs for a clean-energy transition?

By Betony Jones and David Roberts - Volts, June 16, 2023

Will the US clean-energy transition be hampered by a shortage of electricians, plumbers, and skilled construction workers? In this episode, Betony Jones, director of the DOE’s Office of Energy Jobs, talks about the challenge of bringing a clean energy workforce to full capacity and the need for job opportunities in communities impacted by diminished reliance on fossil fuels.

Episode 4: Exploring the Intersection of Labor and Climate Policy

New Book Tells the Story of the Labor-Climate Movement

By Todd E. Vachon - Labor Network for Sustainability, April 30, 2023

Conventional wisdom often holds that the interest of workers in jobs and the interest of environmentalists in preserving nature are diametrically opposed, and that they inevitably lead to conflict between environmental advocates and organized labor. A small but growing Labor-Climate Movement, however, is challenging that frame. It is trying to draw the labor movement into the fight for climate protection while persuading the climate movement that it must take a stand for workers and social justice.

Todd E. Vachon’s Clean Air and Good Jobs is perhaps the first book to take a deep dive into the history, goals, and strategy of the Labor-Climate Movement. It combines scholarly research, extensive interviews, and the author’s own participation and observation in the movement to provide what is at once an accessible introduction and an in-depth account of the individuals and organizations that are creating a “just transition” alternative to the disastrous “jobs vs. environment” dichotomy.

If you want to know more about the labor-climate movement – its past, present, and future — read Clean Air and Good Jobs!

Proud disclosure statement: Todd E. Vachon is not only Assistant Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations and Director of the Labor Education Action Research Network at Rutgers University, but also a longtime LNS stalwart.


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