We Need a Worker-Led EV Transition That Serves the Common Good

The UAW is now in the midst of an ambitious drive to organize the US’s nonunion auto shops, including electric vehicle plants. Winning a just EV transition will require a worker-led organizing strategy that puts common-good demands front and center.

The end of the assembly line where a quality control inspection takes place at Tesla Motors, February 19, 2015, in Fremont, California (Michael Macor / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

The same month the United Auto Workers (UAW) concluded its strike against the Big Three automakers and won its strongest contract in decades, it announced its intention to organize 150,000 workers at thirteen nonunion automakers, from Toyota to Tesla. Already, several organizing drives have gone public, with UAW announcing that 30 percent of workers at Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai plants have signed cards calling for an election, and Volkswagen workers just reporting they crossed the 50 percent threshold.

This marks an important turning point for a union that had been accepting concessionary contracts for decades, and whose membership in the manufacturing sector has been declining overall for the last forty years. UAW president Shawn Fain has rightly focused on class politics as an explanation for the weakening of labor’s power: “The billionaire class has been taking everything, and the working class has been left scraping, paycheck to paycheck, just trying to survive.”

The UAW now has to answer an existential question looming over the auto industry: Will the electric vehicle (EV) transition be led by, and ultimately serve, the corporate class or the working class? Workers will justifiably resist the EV transition if it comes with worse pay, working conditions, and forced relocation — all of which are likely if EV plants remain largely nonunion, as they are now. The UAW will have to pursue an aggressive EV transition strategy that is not only worker-led and democratic but also sets class-wide organizing goals.

The UAW has to go beyond promising union representation and better pay and benefits in its campaign. And because the EV transition will involve changes in what kind of labor is required in auto production and how much, autoworkers have no choice but to chart a broader strategy for winning protections for workers in the energy transition, including, for example, a shorter workweek, universal pensions, and universal health care.

Shawn Fain and the UAW International recently invited workers nationwide to align their contract expiration with May Day in 2028 in preparation for a general strike to tackle class-wide issues. This creates an important opening for rank-and-file organizers: the lead-up to the next contract fight is an opportunity to unite workers across the entire auto sector in a fight for the working class and for climate justice.

But instead of the top-down approach that has historically been the UAW’s playbook, an organizing strategy that emphasizes rank-and-file democracy will allow the union to balance material gains for autoworkers with public good demands. An EV transition that serves the public will take a worker-led organizing strategy that starts at the shop floor, creates democratic organizing spaces, and prioritizes communities and environmental concerns over profit. Ultimately, it will require rethinking the political economy of industrial production and transitioning auto factories to be worker-controlled levers for social change.

Organizing Horizons

A class-wide organizing vision will not only incentivize nonunion workers to join the UAW — it can help bring in support from the rest of the labor movement as well as from other activists organizing for a livable planet. Building a broader coalition will increase the likelihood of successful organizing drives and winning big demands like universal health care. Winning such demands will in turn give workers greater security in fighting for social change without fearing for their livelihood.

The latest UAW contract shows that serious economic gains — like double-digit wage increases and cost-of-living allowances — can be won while substantial progress is made locking in investment for EV production and establishing some job security in the energy transition. As Electric Vehicle Committee cochairs of Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) — the rank-and-file caucus of the UAW that ran the reform slate that elected Shawn Fain — we are not the first to see worker and climate goals as going hand in hand.

In the absence of significant government investments and without aggressive labor organizing, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that a rise in EVs to 50 percent of domestic auto sales by 2030 could result in losses of roughly seventy-five thousand US jobs. In response, winning a shorter workweek — which French and German autoworkers have already made progress on — can help preserve jobs by offsetting the reduced work necessary for EV production.

A worker-led EV transition can develop region- and citywide coalitions and bargaining for the common good over environmental and climate goals — building on the kinds of strategies that the Chicago and Los Angeles teachers’ unions used to win public housing protections for their students. Workers and surrounding communities can unite to fight for higher environmental and emission standards, reducing car and battery size to limit extractive burdens, building public charging stations that work for all, replacing a large portion of car-based transport with public transit, maintaining high safety and job standards along the supply chain (domestically and internationally), and ensuring that as critical mineral mining increases, affected indigenous communities retain their rights and control over their land.

In areas where new organizing drives are on their way, if community members believe that a successful unionization campaign will increase the likelihood of winning such public good demands, they are more likely to participate and support workers. In that case, health, climate, and indigenous organizers will come to see the UAW’s fight as their fight.

Workers Must Drive the Transition

Corporate leaders, major media outlets, and Republican politicians used the recent UAW strike to pit the pay and conditions of autoworkers against climate goals. “Union demands would force Ford to scrap its investments in electric vehicles,” Ford CEO Jim Farley said in an interview. Republican representative Lisa McClain from Michigan argued that “Putting climate change policies over people is absolutely ridiculous, and we cannot stand for it.”

Democratic Party lawmakers, meanwhile, have done little to advance a worker-friendly EV transition. Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act pours billions of dollars into climate and energy projects including electric vehicles, but it has done so with pitiful provisions on labor standards, thereby giving business the opportunity to hire lower-paid, nonunion employees.

A transition to EV production that is good for workers and for the broader public will take more than lobbying governments for green subsidies. And a top-down organizing approach will not work. The claim that union democracy is strategically essential is rooted in the idea that not only do workers know the issues that matter to them most, but also that workers making decisions together builds collective trust and ensures that they are willing to take risks together to fight the boss. This sort of collective deliberation will also be necessary for autoworkers to come to see demands around the EV transition as worth fighting for.

Democratizing UAW’s organizing operation by forming rank-and-file led organizing committees is the best way to make sure that workers most materially affected by the organizing goals are also directing campaigns. UAW should launch a rank-and-file organizing program like the one UAWD advocated for in the 2022 UAW Constitutional Convention. Such a program will create EV organizing committees open to rank-and-file members responsible for setting organizing timelines, writing and distributing literature, and planning meetings, as well as establish democratic hiring of staff involved in local organizing drives. It will shift organizing decision-making away from staff and toward the rank and file, which is important in large part because the UAW does not have the staff capacity to match the organizing scale necessary for this campaign.

Enabling rank-and-file participation and decision-making will help undo the bureaucratization of the UAW under decades of single party rule by the “Administration Caucus,” which has served management and not members. UAWD will be instrumental in pushing for expanding democracy through shop-floor drives.

Using the newly secured right-to-transfer provisions, workers in existing UAW facilities should be encouraged to transfer into nonunion EV plants and build up organizing drives from the shop floor. The UAW should also encourage organizers — just as Democratic Socialists of America lays out in its description of the Rank-and-File Strategy — to join these campaigns as rank-and-file workers to build militancy on the shop floor.

A Bumpy Road

One of the biggest wins in the latest contract was bringing Stellantis’s and General Motors’ battery plants, as well as one Ford battery plant, under the union’s master agreement with the automakers. (The companies had been resisting this move through legal ownership maneuvers for several years.) This increases the UAW’s leverage by enabling the union to bargain collectively for contract language that will apply to both EV and internal combustion engine (ICE) autoworkers and fights the trend of EV workers receiving substantially worse pay and benefits than their ICE counterparts.

But the extension of the master agreement to the Big Three’s EV plants was not an unalloyed victory. For one, UAW bargainers and membership felt compelled to accept a contract with a lower wage tier for new hires in new battery plants (paying as low as 75 percent of top-rate), adding to the existing division between ICE and EV workers, and setting up more fights to come. Ford’s massive BlueOval EV facility in Tennessee still has a recognition fight in its future, though the UAW was able to win transfer rights for its workers, meaning that the union can seed the plant with seasoned organizers. And within months of the contract ratification, Stellantis cut more than five hundred supplemental workers across several plants, showing that ensuring job security for all workers will be a difficult task.

Overall, the companies are betting that, when the contract expires in four and a half years, economic conditions will be favorable for them to propagate EV tiers and erode job standards through the transition. The UAW’s only option is to aggressively organize plants before then.

Despite the challenges of organizing in right-to-work states in the South — where capital is rapidly expanding EV operations to circumvent labor protections — the UAW now has a powerful argument to make with a strong contract win under its belt. Toyota, Subaru, Honda, and Hyundai have all increased worker wages since the UAW’s strike, showing that the union is setting standards across the industry, and suggesting the leverage that autoworkers could have in a fully unionized auto sector.

Achieving a worker-led EV transition, even at already unionized shops, will take more than striking at each contract expiration. It will take continuous shop-floor organizing over grievances — such as fighting to ensure hazardous battery work can be done safely. Using the UAW’s newly won right to strike over plant closures, and preexisting provisions that allow striking over work changes like safety and assembly-line speedups, will help make sure that the union keeps building its power over the coming years.

Aiming for Worker Control

It is not unlikely that future market crises will result in periods of austerity for workers, as was the case after the 2008 crash of the auto industry. Instead of accepting these boom-and-bust cycles endemic to capitalism, organizers must reject the logic that the climate transition needs to be profitable for private interests. Moreover, the speed and extent of planning necessary to phase out fossil fuels will ultimately require industries — including the transportation and power sectors — to be publicly financed, as well as democratically and collectively run, either through nationalization or worker control.

Worker control, long championed by labor radicals of various stripes, is not at all a new concept. After the 1914 Ludlow Massacre of striking Colorado coal miners, a member of the federal government’s Commission on Industrial Relations, on page 303 of its final report, called for turning over the coal industry to the workers. In the 1920s in Italy, workers briefly took over auto factories and ran them without bosses or profits.

More recently, following the 2019 closure of a Canadian General Motors plant, workers joined with community allies to form Green Jobs Oshawa, calling on the federal government to take control of the facility and convert it to produce electric vehicles — like school buses, postal vans, and ambulances — to be procured by the government for the public. In 2021, laid-off workers at a parts plant in Florence, Italy, went a step further by occupying their facility for over two years. Their effort to retool the factory for green production shows that the call for a worker-run auto industry can be a pragmatic one when market forces harm communities and fail to deliver an EV transition that benefits the public.

Research, strategizing, and rank-and-file organizing for a democratized and worker-controlled auto industry should start now. And when the next large-scale economic crisis emerges, we need to be ready with a program that protects workers from corporate greed. With its campaign to organize nonunion auto shops and its stated commitment to winning a pro-worker EV transition, the UAW is poised to lead the way.

This work has been made possible by the support of the Puffin Foundation.

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Toly Rinberg is a member of the Harvard Graduate Student Union, UAW Local 5118, and is a cochair of Unite All Workers for Democracy’s Electric Vehicle Committee.

Martha Grevatt is a retired UAW Stellantis worker who served on the executive boards of UAW Locals 122 (Twinsburg, Ohio) and 869 (Warren, Michigan). She is a member of the Unite All Workers for Democracy Steering Committee and serves on UAWD’s EV, Diversity, and Palestine Solidarity and Peace Economy committees.

Chris Viola is an autoworker and member of UAW Local 22 and Metro Detroit Democratic Socialists of America, as well as a cochair of Unite All Workers for Democracy’s Electric Vehicle Committee.

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