Workers at General Motors’ electric vehicle battery manufacturing facilities will now be protected by the company’s national contract with the United Auto Workers (UAW), according to an announcement made by UAW President Shawn Fain last week. This landmark victory represents a significant step forward in the fight for a “just transition” away from fossil fuels, prioritizing labor rights and providing hope that workers in legacy vehicle manufacturers’ EV divisions, as well as the wider electric vehicle sector, will enjoy the same protections that US autoworkers have historically had.
Fain emphasized the significance of this win, stating, “We have been told the EV future must be a race to the bottom. We called their bluff.” As part of the ongoing strike against the big three US automakers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler and Jeep owner Stellantis), this victory ensures that workers at General Motors’ current and planned battery plants will benefit from the safeguards negotiated in the UAW’s master contract agreement with the company, even though these factories are joint ventures with other companies.
Furthermore, this agreement sets a precedent for the rest of the automotive industry, particularly Ford and Stellantis, which have also established joint-venture EV battery manufacturing facilities. The UAW is currently negotiating new contracts with these companies, and the protection granted to General Motors’ workers will now extend to those employed at future plants as the company continues its transition away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles.
Chris Viola, an employee at Factory Zero, General Motors’ EV assembly plant in Detroit, Michigan, expressed his belief that this win signifies the first step towards a just transition for autoworkers. He emphasized that a just transition means maintaining job security, fair wages, and the ability to support families, as autoworkers have been able to do for decades.
The big three automakers, although still relying on gasoline-fueled cars for their primary business models, have committed to scaling up their production of electric vehicles. Ford plans to phase out gas-powered cars by 2040, while Stellantis aims for half of its US sales and all European sales to be electric vehicles by the end of the decade.
However, until now, these companies had not committed to maintaining autoworkers’ labor standards during this transition. In 2019, General Motors phased out car assembly at a plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where workers were earning $32 an hour. It subsequently established a joint venture with LG Energy Solution, known as Ultium Cells, at the same location but offered starting wages of just $16.50 an hour. Following unionization and negotiations, these wages increased to $20 an hour.
Despite the record-breaking profits enjoyed by the big three in recent years and the substantial public incentives they receive to support domestic EV manufacturing, concerns have been raised about EVs’ slim profit margins. The companies argue that increasing wages and improving working conditions could make them less competitive compared to nonunion rival producers like Tesla.
However, this recent victory for General Motors’ workers could pave the way for unionization efforts among other EV workers, including those at Tesla, where employees earn considerably less than their counterparts at the big three. Fain has confirmed that after negotiations with the big three, the UAW will focus on organizing Tesla workers.
In light of these developments, workers in the automotive industry and beyond are realizing their collective power. The UAW’s strong leadership has ignited hope and determination. Martha Grevatt, a retired UAW worker for Chrysler (now Stellantis), highlighted the importance of this fight not only for workers’ quality of life but also for their physical safety, given the potential exposure to hazardous chemicals in battery production. Workers strongly advocate for robust health and safety measures and the right to refuse unsafe work.
The UAW’s efforts to improve conditions for EV workers could also have a far-reaching impact on other sectors of the emerging green economy. Jobs in renewable energy, for instance, often offer lower wages and have lower unionization rates compared to the oil and gas industry. Addressing these disparities becomes essential in ensuring broader support and acceptance of a zero emissions economy.
Sydney Ghazarian, an organizer with the climate and labor advocacy group Labor Network for Sustainability, emphasized the significance of socially and economically just transitions for all workers and individuals. This fight goes beyond autoworkers, impacting the aspirations of millions of people. The battle for a socially and economically just transition is a cause that concerns everyone.
In conclusion, the protection granted to General Motors’ workers in their national contract with the UAW marks a critical victory in the pursuit of a just transition away from fossil fuels. This win not only safeguards the labor rights of autoworkers in the EV sector but also sets a precedent for the automotive industry as a whole. The struggle for fair conditions and unionization efforts among EV workers, including those at Tesla, will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of the green economy. The collective power of workers and their determination to protect their rights and well-being will be vital in ensuring a socially and economically just transition to a zero emissions economy.