The auto industry is one of the most unionized parts of the U.S. economy, and the UAW strike is in part an effort to ensure that remains the case even as the transition to electric vehicles threatens to shrink its workforce.
Thousands of workers walked out of three plants that make gasoline-powered trucks or sport utility vehicles at midnight Thursday.
The UAW is demanding higher wages for its nearly 150,000 members who work at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. Its activities are part of a wider fight: to protect workers through the transition to clean energy, which could see an estimated 35,000 jobs disappear.
That’s because the most successful new players in electric vehicles, such as Tesla and Rivian Automotive, are not unionized.
The striking plants are far from the Lordstown, Ohio, plant operated by a joint venture between GM and LG Energy Solutions that makes batteries for GM’s electric vehicles, but workers at the plant are not protected by the same contract. .
The UAW criticized pay and working conditions at the joint venture, called Ultium Cells. Workers there make less than UAW workers at the Detroit automaker, although they received a raise of $3 to $4 an hour last month.
“The battery factory jobs that power this transition must be as good or better than the jobs currently making internal combustion engine vehicles and components,” the United Auto Workers union said in a report.
The union wants plants like Lordstown to be included in the main contract governing the Detroit Three’s workforce; the automakers oppose that. Instead, workers at the plant must vote to join the UAW, a more onerous process.
UAW President Shawn Fain has repeatedly said the shift to electric vehicles, which currently account for about 8% of new car sales, must be a “just transition” that “does not leave workers behind.”
The U.S. auto industry employs nearly one million workers to build vehicles and parts.
Although considered the quintessential “good job” in the American imagination, jobs in the automotive industry don’t start out that way. According to the Library of Congress, the average autoworker earned about $900 a month in 1935—just over half the amount needed to support a family of four.
During the historic sit-down strikes of 1936-1937, workers took control of several General Motors plants and helped create an industry with an average wage of $73,000, compared with $88,000 today if only automobile assembly plants are considered. The UAW cited the strike as the inspiration for its current strike action.
About 16% of people in the U.S. auto industry are unionized, compared with 10% of the overall U.S. workforce. The UAW’s membership peaked at 1.5 million in 1979, but its ranks dwindled along with the rest of the American labor movement. It now has approximately 400,000 members. This is likely to decline further as electric vehicles become mainstream.
Building electric vehicles requires fewer workers than building internal combustion engine cars and trucks because they have fewer parts. Ford CEO Jim Farley said last year that the industry would require 40% fewer workers to produce electric vehicles.
The automakers have proposed raises of 17.5% to 20%, while the UAW is asking for a 36% raise over four years. The automaker also wants to retain a two-tier wage system that takes new employees four years to reach the same salary as permanent employees, but unions have objected.
Auto workers aren’t the only threat to companies planning to use new technologies to shift production away from union labor. The use of generative artificial intelligence in filmmaking is the crux of a months-long strike by Hollywood writers and actors against movie studios.
Longshore workers at West Coast ports cited a surge in robots as they renegotiated employment contracts in June, while airline pilots unions resisted cutting crews from two to one as self-driving software advances.
The 88-year-old UAW has experienced other technological transformations, including the beginning of factory automation of production lines in the 1970s.
However, Ian Greer, director of research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said the shift to electric vehicles would be “more disruptive” to existing jobs because it has the potential to eliminate many positions and significantly change or relocated to other positions.
He added that the UAW is “concerned that autoworkers will pay the price” of this shift.
“Whether workers who now make internal combustion engines will be able to move to new jobs, or whether they will have to go through a period of unemployment, is an open question. For a movement that aims to ensure people have good jobs, these are Very important question.”
Electrification does not pose the same threat to unions outside the United States. In Germany, unions have a seat on company boards and electric car workers are members of the same union as those who operate engines.
Even as Tesla shuns labor groups in California and Texas and even fires workers who try to organize, it does have unions in Germany, though the company has repeatedly clashed with workers over conditions and demands.
But in the United States, German automaker Volkswagen is following the lead of U.S. automakers and opening plants in union-unfriendly southern states. In 2019, VW voted to build its Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant that builds the Volkswagen Atlas SUV and the electric ID. 4. Workers refused to vote.
Workers at a Nissan plant in Mississippi voted against unionizing in 2017, and the Smyrna, Tenn., plant that makes the electric Leaf voted against unionizing earlier this year.
“The current strike could weaken Michigan’s position in the industry as Detroit companies compete with the all-electric, union-free Tesla and foreign-owned factories primarily in southern states,” a Moody’s report said.
Automakers are investing billions of dollars in new factories and tools to build electric vehicles. If the UAW meets its wage targets, it “could reduce the profitability of some legacy automaker programs that are particularly relevant to industry transformation,” the report said.
But speaking at a United Auto Workers rally in Detroit on Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders noted that the average U.S. autoworker wage, adjusted for inflation, has declined over the past two decades.
“There was a time when union jobs in the auto industry were the gold standard for the American working class,” he said.
“Well, we’re determined to go back to those days again.”