United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain

United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain speaks at an event in Warren, Michigan on August 20, 2023.

(Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Khanna and UAW President Demand 'New Model' That Puts Workers, Climate Over Profits

"We will not let corporate greed manipulate the transition to a green economy into a roll back of economic justice."

With the United Auto Workers just hours away from a potentially historic strike, the union's president joined Democratic U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna on Thursday in calling for transformational economic change that places the needs of workers and the health of the planet over the bottom lines of powerful corporations.

In a joint op-ed for The Guardian, Khanna and UAW president Shawn Fain wrote that "the climate crisis and income inequality are the two greatest challenges facing our generation" and noted that both are integral to the union's ongoing contract negotiations with Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis.

"This is a pivotal moment for the American economy and the workers that make it run. Corporations are pushing hard to use this moment to expand their power," Fain and Khanna wrote. "We're mobilizing for a new model that puts working people, climate justice, and human rights before profit."

The pair argued that "corporate greed" is the barrier preventing a fair contract between the UAW and the Big Three. The union's current contracts with the automakers are set to expire just before midnight Thursday, triggering a strike if no adequate deal is reached.

"Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis have made a quarter trillion dollars over the last 10 years," Fain and Khanna wrote. "Those profits, and the very existence of the Big Three today, were only possible through the sacrifices made by UAW members when American taxpayers bailed out the industry. Those same workers were never made whole after being forced to accept lower wages and were stripped of cost-of-living adjustments and retiree pensions."

"We will not let the EV industry be built on the backs of workers making poverty wages while CEOs line their pockets with government subsidies."

The pair added that the Big Three CEOs "received on average a 40% pay raise on top of their multimillion-dollar salaries" over the past four years while autoworkers saw their pay rise by just 6% during that period.

"What's also at stake in these contract negotiations is the very future of the auto industry itself—and workers' place in it," Fain and Khanna continued. "The electric vehicle transition must be as much about workers' rights as it is about fighting the climate crisis. We will not let the EV industry be built on the backs of workers making poverty wages while CEOs line their pockets with government subsidies."

"We will not let the EV industry be built on the backs of workers making poverty wages while CEOs line their pockets with government subsidies," they wrote. "There is no good reason why EV manufacturing can't be the gateway to the middle class. But the early signs of this industry are worrying. We will not let corporate greed manipulate the transition to a green economy into a rollback of economic justice."

The UAW has been pressuring President Joe Biden for months to clearly demonstrate his commitment to an EV transition that is both pro-worker and pro-climate as automakers increasingly invest in the largely non-union U.S. South, threatening what Fain has described as a "race to the bottom" in electric vehicle manufacturing.

Ian Greer, a research professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said Thursday that "most factory workers making EVs, batteries and electric propulsion systems are nonunionized, receive lower wages, and experience worse working conditions compared to the Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis workers making internal combustion engines and vehicles."

"Unionized autoworkers are fighting to have EVs and related components produced in existing workplaces and to extend union wages and benefits to battery and component plants," said Greer. "If the union fails, the EV transition could take place without being 'just,' producing long spells of unemployment and dangerous low-wage jobs where workers have no voice. If it succeeds, working-class Americans will see that they can have better working lives while protecting the planet."

The UAW has thus far withheld its 2024 presidential endorsement from Biden, expressing frustration over EV-related federal loans and funds that the administration has given to automakers without strict conditions to protect workers.

Earlier this month, in a seeming nod to the UAW's demands, the Biden administration announced a $15.5 billion funding package aimed at "retooling existing factories for the transition to electric vehicles (EVs)—supporting good jobs and a just transition to EVs."

Fain and Khanna noted in their op-ed Thursday that "the federal government will likely spend more than $300 billion on electric vehicle subsidies by 2031."

"That money must be invested in high-road, green American manufacturing jobs that create broad-based prosperity for working-class communities," they added. "But there is a real danger that those hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars will be squandered on pumping up extreme profits without transparency or oversight... The electric vehicle future must be union-made."

The op-ed was published as nearly 150,000 UAW members prepared to walk off the job as soon as Friday morning as union negotiators and Big Three management remain far apart on key issues, including wages.

Along with 75% of the U.S. public, green groups have expressed support for the UAW as it gets ready to take collective action in pursuit of a new four-year contract that includes significantly better wages and benefits.

"We do not have to choose between good jobs and green jobs," Trevor Dolan, industry and workforce policy lead at Evergreen Action, said in a statement Wednesday. "Corporate titans will try to split our movement by presenting us with a false choice. They’ll try to argue that building more clean cars is more important than supporting workers. But we know better."

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