The auto industry is one of the more heavily unionised parts of the US economy — and United Auto Workers are striking in part to ensure that remains the case, even as the transition to electric vehicles threatens to shrink its workforce.
At midnight on Thursday thousands of workers walked out of three plants, all of which make trucks or sport utility vehicles powered by petrol.
The UAW is demanding higher wages for nearly 150,000 members who work at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. Its campaign is part of a much broader battle: to protect workers through the transition to clean energy, which it estimates could cost 35,000 jobs.
That is because the most successful new players in electric vehicles, such as Tesla and Rivian Automotive, do not have a unionised workforce.
The striking plants are far from the Lordstown, Ohio factory operated by a joint venture between General Motors and LG Energy Solutions that makes batteries for GM’s EVs, whose workers are not covered by the same contracts.
The UAW has criticised pay and working conditions at the joint venture, known as Ultium Cells. Workers there make less than UAW workers at the Detroit carmakers, though last month they won pay raises worth $3 to $4 an hour.
“Jobs in the battery plants that will power this transition must be as good or better than current jobs building internal combustion engine vehicles and components,” the UAW said in a report.
The union wants factories such as Lordstown to be covered by the main contracts governing the workforce of the Detroit Three; the carmakers oppose this. Instead, workers at the plant had to vote in order to join the UAW, a more onerous process.
UAW president Shawn Fain has repeatedly said the shift to electric vehicles, which currently comprise about 8 per cent of new car sales, must be “a just transition” that “does not leave workers behind”.
The US auto industry employs nearly 1mn workers to manufacture vehicles and parts.
Though considered the quintessential “good job” in the American imagination, auto jobs did not start that way. According to the Library of Congress, the average auto worker in 1935 took home about $900 a month — just over half the amount necessary to support a family of four.
The historic 1936-1937 Sit Down Strike, where workers seized control of several GM plants, helped create an industry where a job pays on average $73,000, or $88,000 today if only motor vehicle assembly plants are considered. The UAW has invoked the strike as inspiration for its current industrial action.
About 16 per cent of the US auto industry is unionised, compared to 10 per cent of the US workforce as a whole. The UAW’s membership peaked in 1979 at 1.5mn but its ranks have thinned along with the rest of the US labour movement. It now has about 400,000 members. That risks declining further as EVs become mainstream.
Building EVs requires fewer workers than building cars and trucks with internal combustion engines because EVs have fewer parts. Ford chief executive Jim Farley last year said the industry will need 40 per cent fewer workers to build EVs.
Carmakers have offered wage increases ranging from 17.5 to 20 per cent, while the UAW has asked for 36 per cent over four years. The carmakers also want to keep a two-tier wage system in which newer workers take four years to reach the same pay as longtime employees, which the union opposes.
Auto workers are not the only ones threatened by companies’ plans to use new technology to divert production away from unionised workforces. The use of generative AI in film-making is a sticking point for Hollywood screenwriters and actors in their months-long strike against film studios.
Longshoremen at the west coast ports cited proliferating robots as they renegotiated their employment contracts in June, while airline pilots unions have resisted cutting flight crews from two people to one as autopilot software advances.
The 88-year-old UAW has endured other technological transitions, including when factories began automating production lines in the 1970s.
However, the shift to EVs is “far more disruptive” to existing jobs because it threatens to eliminate many roles and significantly change or relocate others, said Ian Greer, the director of research at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
The UAW’s “concern is that the autoworkers will be paying for this transition”, he added.
“It’s an open question if the workers who are making internal combustion engines now will be able to transfer into new kinds of work or will they have to experience spells of unemployment. These are all super important questions for a movement whose purpose is to make sure that people have good jobs.”
Electrification does not pose the same threat to unions outside the US. In Germany, where unions sit on company boards, electric vehicle workers are members of the same union as their engine-handling counterparts.
Even Tesla, which eschews labour groups in California and Texas and even fired workers who tried to organise, has a union in Germany, although the company has clashed several times with its workers over conditions and demands.
But in the US, the German carmaker Volkswagen has adopted the practices of US carmakers, opening plants in southern states unfriendly to labour unions. When VW held a vote in 2019 for its Chattanooga plant in Tennessee, which makes both the VW Atlas SUV and the electric ID. 4, workers rejected the ballot.
Nissan’s workers at a Mississippi plant voted against unionising in 2017, while its Smyrna, Tennessee plant, where it makes the electric Leaf, voted down a union earlier this year.
“The current strike could undermine Michigan’s position in the industry as the Detroit-based companies compete with the all-electric and union-free Tesla, as well as foreign-owned plants located mostly in southern states,” according to a report from Moody’s.
Carmakers are investing billions in new factories and tooling to build EVs. If the UAW reaches its goals for wages, the report said, it would “likely reduce the profitability of some legacy auto manufacturers’ projects specifically linked to the industry’s transformation”.
But Senator Bernie Sanders, speaking at a UAW rally in Detroit on Friday, pointed out American auto workers’ average wages have decreased over the last two decades after adjusting for inflation.
“There was once a time when a union job in the automobile industry was the gold standard for the working class in America,” he said.
“Well, we are determined to bring those days back again.”