GM’s recent concession to the United Auto Workers (UAW) union on electric vehicles (EVs) marks a victory for renewable energy proponents, countering the idea that the EV transition inherently conflicts with labor interests.
The automaker’s agreement last week to place EV battery plants under its master agreement with the UAW represents a major step toward what union President Shawn Fain has called a “just transition” to EV manufacturing that serves workers as well as environmental aims.
“We’ve been told the EV future must be a race to the bottom. And now we’ve called their bluff,” Fain said following GM’s concession.
“There was this sort of false separation or weakening of workers in the EV sector by keeping them out of the master contract,” Saul Levin, legislative and political director at the Green New Deal Network, told The Hill. “The auto industry has for decades driven this wedge, [but] this really is proof in a real contract that this is not the case.”
Workers have raised concerns that automakers are using the transition to undercut wages — issues that contributed to the UAW’s decision to launch its ongoing strike. In addition to the foreign domination of much of the EV supply chain, the largest single US manufacturer of EVs, Tesla, is a nonunion company.
In negotiations with “Big 3” automakers GM, Ford and Stellantis, Fain has emphasized that the union supports a transition to EVs but demands protections for union jobs during the process.
The agreement with GM does not fully resolve the issue, as the union has yet to secure similar ones from Ford and Stellantis. However, Levin said, it’s a major milestone for any automaker to make such a concession, and it makes it that much harder for the other two to argue they can’t.
“The company saying this wasn’t possible, there’s no way EV workers can be covered by a union job, has shown to be not true,” he said. “And now what’s to keep Ford and Stellantis from bringing EV workers on joint ventures into the master contract?”
“A strong workforce actually accelerates the transition because you have a trained workforce that can do the work,” Mijin Cha, an assistant professor in the environmental studies department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told The Hill in an email. ,[F]ighting for EV battery manufacturing to be union is really important to show that green jobs can be good jobs and that there is no conflict between addressing climate change and supporting workers.”
Stellantis declined to comment on whether any similar agreements were the subject of talks with the UAW, while Ford referred The Hill to an Oct. 3 statement reading, “While Ford remains open to the possibility of working with the UAW on future battery plants in the United States, these are multi-billion-dollar investments and must operate at competitive and sustainable levels.”
“Three of the four battery plants we’ve announced are part of the BlueOval SK joint venture between Ford and SK On,” Ford added. “The workforce for these operations has not been hired. “The future employees at these operations can choose to be union represented and enter into the collective bargaining process.”
Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates have frequently sought to drive a wedge between union workers and EV proponents. Former President Trump, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, hit the issue in the swing state of Michigan, railing against electric cars in September at an appearance at a nonunion plant. On the legislative side, meanwhile, Ohio Sen. JD Vance (R) has introduced legislation to end tax credits for EVs and said earlier this year that he supports “the UAW’s demand for higher wages, but there is a 6,000-pound elephant in the room: the premature transition to electric vehicles.”
The Trump camp in particular sees an opportunity to make potential inroads into historically Democratic voting blocs by exploiting fears of lost automaker jobs, the same way it tapped into those fears about coal jobs in 2016, said Jason Walsh, executive director for the BlueGreen Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on the intersection of environmental and labor issues.
Even before the GM agreement, however, Walsh said that one confounding variable has been Fain’s vocal criticisms of Trump and those who deploy similar anti-EV rhetoric.
“I think he’s been very articulate and powerful about it, and he has called out Trump and others who have tried to exploit this issue,” Walsh said of Fain.
The new agreement counters the arguments that the transition and union job protections are a binary choice “very effectively,” said David Foster, a distinguished associate at the Energy Futures Initiative who formerly served in the Obama Energy Department.
Foster was lead author on research that found that without worker protections, the EV transition could in fact cost jobs in the manufacturing hubs of Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. However, the research also found that with those protections in place, the transition could instead create up to 50,000 jobs.
Those findings, Foster said, “show very clearly that having the right kind of industrial policy to support energy transition is a very effective way of rebuilding the manufacturing base in the United States.”
A combination of factors such as union-won concessions and policies like those in the Inflation Reduction Act, he said, mean the auto industry doesn’t have to face the same decline it did in the late 1970s, or that faced by the domestic steel. industry in the 1980s.
The GM concession was far from the UAW’s only ask. The union’s broader demands fall into three main categories, Walsh said: “Good, safe jobs that pay workers their fair share, the elimination of a tier system. [for worker compensation] and a union-built EV future, which is the part we’ve been talking about.”
“All three of those intersecting buckets of issues are being addressed in negotiations,” he added.
“The unanswered question is, will the battery plants that are being built by foreign subsidiaries rise up to paying the level of wages that will be negotiated by the UAW?” Foster said. “And I think that’s a very important question to ask, because it doesn’t really work to have two standards in an integrated industry.”