The climate crisis and income inequality are the two greatest challenges facing our generation. Both are being determined in the union contract negotiations between the United Auto Workers Union and Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, known as the big three, which are all set to expire this Thursday night at midnight.
Shawn’s grandparents migrated from the south during the Great Depression and landed jobs at Chrysler and General Motors in Indiana, altering the trajectory of his family, from destitute poverty to solidly middle class, in just one generation. Ro’s parents immigrated from India to Pennsylvania seeking a better life where Ro grew up surrounded by families and factories employing once-high-income-workers to now sit in one of America’s most powerful institutions. Both family stories reveal a common thread, binding together the promise of an American Dream.
Yet, here we are in the 11th hour of UAW-big three negotiations, and corporate greed stands as the barrier preventing movement and a fair and good contract for autoworkers. Ford, General Motors and Stellantis have made a quarter trillion dollars over the last 10 years. 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.
Over the last four years, each big three CEO received on average a 40% pay raise on top of their multimillion-dollar salaries. Autoworkers saw their pay increase by a mere 6% in that same period of time, falling behind in inflation like the rest of American workers.
Since 2003, the big three have closed 65 auto plants. Plant closures ruin lives, rip apart families and wreck entire communities. For too long, the auto companies have treated these plants and workers as disposable for their bottom line. If allowed, they will continue to leave entire towns and communities behind.
What’s also at stake in these contract negotiations is the very future of the auto industry itself – and workers’ place in it. 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. 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 roll back of economic justice.
The federal government will likely spend more than $300bn 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. 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.
UAW members who build cars for a living don’t do it out of a passion for combustion engines or electric vehicles. UAW members do it out of a passion for families and communities. Our priority is safe, family-wage jobs, not only building engines at legacy automakers, but also battery cells at EV startups. The electric vehicle future must be union made. We can have both economic and climate justice – and that starts by ensuring that the electric vehicle industry is entirely unionized and that EV jobs come with union standards.
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.
We’re mobilizing for a new model that puts working people, climate justice and human rights before profit. Generations before us, like Shawn’s grandparents and Ro’s parents, benefitted from a robust manufacturing economy with the kinds of high- wage jobs that having strong union contracts can bring. We are once again faced with a defining moment for a new generation of workers. Forcing workers to decide between good jobs and green jobs is a false choice. We can and must achieve both – and it can start with a fair contract for UAW autoworkers.
Ro Khanna is a congressman from California
Shawn Fain is the president of the United Auto Workers