What the UAW Wants Exactly — and What It Means for Electric Cars
A deep dive into the union’s demands
It’s time to deliver pumpkin spiced lattes to the picket lines, because Hot Labor Summer is raging into the fall.
The United Auto Workers Union’s contract with General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Stellantis expired at midnight on Thursday, and the union has made the unprecedented decision to strike all three companies at once.
The transition to electric vehicles is a defining issue of the fight. The Big Three say they aspire for 40% to 50% of their U.S. sales to be electric vehicles by the end of this decade. But they argue that ceding to workers’ demands for higher wages would jeopardize their ability to invest in EVs and their competitiveness against Tesla and foreign automakers that operate nonunion plants.
Meanwhile, the automakers are opening new joint venture battery plants that are not covered under the union’s national agreement, and paying workers there less. That trend, plus the fear that electric vehicles will require fewer workers to assemble than gas-powered vehicles, call into question the Biden administration’s key selling point of tackling climate change — that switching to EVs and other clean technologies is an opportunity “to create millions of good-paying, union jobs.”
When it comes to what UAW is trying to do about all of this, it's not entirely clear. Fain has taken a different stance than his predecessors by embracing the transition to EVs. But when you look at the union’s key demands, electric vehicles aren’t mentioned anywhere.
So how is the union actually tackling the transition? The negotiations are largely confidential, and the UAW has only shared the loose outlines of its proposals to the Big Three. But here’s what we know.
What are the union’s main demands?
Electric vehicles aren’t named directly on the union’s list, but the transition away from gas-powered cars is implicated in multiple proposals.
1. Wages. The union’s top priority is higher pay. Fain went into negotiations asking for a 40% increase in wages over the next four years, equivalent to the raises that Big Three CEOs received over the last four, and cost of living increases to match inflation. This would boost the pay of all its members, including those working on EVs.
2. Ending Tiers. Fain also aims to end the “tier” system which created different pay classes and benefits between workers. Currently, new hires start at $16 to $18 and have to pay their dues for eight years before earning senior-level wages that top out at $32. Temporary workers make even less, and temp workers at Stellantis have no clear path to permanent positions. It’s not entirely clear what the tier system will mean as the automakers ramp up EV production.
3. Right to strike plant closures. One fear is that automakers will shut down existing plants and build new ones elsewhere, forcing workers to relocate and disrupt their lives if they want to keep their jobs. For example, earlier this year, Stellantis idled a plant in Illinois, laying off a workforce of 1,350. The company said it made the decision due to the escalating costs to shift to electric vehicle production. Some of the plant’s workers transferred to other plants in other states. Workers also fear the companies will end up building new EV plants in right-to-work states, and doing so under new ownership structures, like the joint-venture battery plants, enabling them to keep the UAW out entirely.
The union contracts typically contain a “no strike, no lockout” clause that bars workers from protesting. So if one of the automakers decides not to “allocate” any new vehicle models to a particular plant, signaling potential closure, workers have no way to fight the decision. This provision would change that. While it’s unclear how effective a strike at a plant slated for closure would be, it could provide a path for them to open negotiations with the company to try and keep it open, or move one of its planned EV models into the plant.
4. Paid community service. Fain has also proposed a “Working Family Protection Program.” This seems more like a veiled threat than a real protection plan for workers. The details are vague, but the union said it's asking that in the event of a plant closure, companies have to pay UAW members to do community service work. In a speech to UAW members this week, Fain described it as a way to “disincentivize the Big Three from killing jobs.”
What about battery plants?
This one’s a bit murky. UAW leadership has made it clear it wants jobs at the Big Three’s joint venture battery plants to be union positions. But the UAW leadership hasn’t said publicly whether rolling joint-venture plant workers into the master contract is one of its demands in the negotiations. And it’s not even clear the union can use a joint venture as a bargaining chip in its current talks, as TheAmerican Prospectreports.
The automakers have already tried to quash the notion earlier this summer in negotiations between UAW and the Ultium Cells plant in Lordstown, Ohio, which is owned by GM and LG Energy Solutions, a South Korean company. In August, the union reached an interim agreement with Ultium, winning $3 to $4 raises and thousands more in backpay for workers. But the company has resisted the union’s calls to roll plant workers into the national GM contract, insisting it “is a separate legal entity and independent employer from GM or LGES.”
Art Wheaton, director of Labor Studies at Cornell University, told me one thing the automakers could do is agree to a non-compete clause, or pledge neutrality at the joint-venture plants, so that workers could more easily organize and vote to join UAW.
What could they realistically get?
We don’t know what other transition-related provisions the union may have proposed, like job training guarantees. Ultimately, its EV wins could look more like new plant investment announcements than broader protections for workers in the transition.
For example, going into the last UAW strike in 2019, GM had four “unallocated” plants that were likely to close. But the union negotiated with GM to save one of the plants — the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly factory. The final contract contained a promise from GM to invest $3 billion to retool it for electric truck and van assembly. In 2021, the plant reopened as Factory ZERO, the company’s first dedicated EV assembly plant, and began producing the 2022 GMC Hummer EV Pickup.
It should be noted that the Big Three are not Fain’s only target. The union boss has also withheld his support for Biden’s re-election, putting pressure on the administration to do more to support organized labor.
We’re unlikely to see a big spending package like the Inflation Reduction Act that could premise subsidies on union labor anytime soon. But Ian Greer, another professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told me there’s a lot more policymakers can do to protect workers. He pointed to a federal program called Trade Adjustment Assistance, which provided aid to workers who lost their jobs, including training opportunities. The program expired in 2022.
“Congress could just reauthorize that, and that would release a lot of resources to support these workers who are going to lose their jobs,” said Greer. “Our institutions create so few tools and levers that unions can use to manage this transition and protect their members. I think this is a really important bit of context about why there's a strike that very few Americans are talking about.”