Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Opinion | The green transition has to mean more well-paying union jobs

CW / Ethan Henry
Workers from ZF Chassis Systems picket on Oct. 4 across the street from the plant where they work.

More than 30,000 members of the United Auto Workers are currently on strike at plants owned by the Big Three automakers: Ford, General Motors and Stellantis.

You can be loyal to American labor or you can be loyal to the environmental lunatics,” former President Donald Trump recently said at a rally hosted by a non-union parts supplier.

Absolute nonsense.

Trump joined Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio; Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.; and just about every fellow Republican presidential candidate in baselessly claiming that these UAW members decided to strike because of the Biden administration’s support of electric vehicles. Instead of addressing the workers’ actual demands, Republicans deflect by claiming that we actually need to throw the planet-cooking machine into overdrive.

UAW members aren’t on strike because of the green transition or the Inflation Reduction Act

They’re on strike because the Big Three took for granted the sacrifices auto workers made to keep plants open during the Great Recession. They’re on strike because making cars is grueling, dangerous work and auto workers deserve pay, benefits and hours that reflect that fact.

In the words of UAW president Shawn Fain, “It’s the battle of the working class against the rich, the haves versus the have-nots, the billionaire class against everyone else.” When politicians like Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., suggest striking workers should get fired, they’re taking the side of the billionaire class.

There will necessarily be some friction as automakers move towards electric vehicles, but research suggests there could be just as many jobs in manufacturing electric vehicles as manufacturing vehicles with internal combustion engines. 

The UAW knows this. Fain explained UAW members are “simply asking for a just transition to electric vehicles.”

We have been told for months this is impossible. We have been told the EV future must be a race to the bottom,” Fain said. But facing a threatened escalation of the UAW’s stand up strike, General Motors caved. GM’s new battery manufacturing plants will be covered by UAW’s contract with the company.

When the green transition does negatively affect union workers, it’s the work of Republican politicians like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Kemp is using tax subsidies and quirks of state law to steer billions of dollars in green investment to non-union firms, while openly bragging about Georgia’s anti-union laws.

The UAW is negotiating primarily with the Big Three, but Fain is clear about the scope of the union’s goals: “We fight for the good of the entire working class.” Every member of the working class, from actors and writers to coal miners and health care workers, is in the same struggle against the billionaire class.

Here in Tuscaloosa, members of UAW Local 2083 are engaged in this struggle as well, despite not being involved in the negotiations with the Big Three. They are employed by ZF Chassis Systems, a parts supplier for Mercedes-Benz, and were on strike for 29 days.

At ZF, just like at the Big Three plants, hours were long, pay was low, and opportunities for advancement were limited. 

Lorenzo Miller, an Army veteran who began working for ZF in 1998, said that while he was able to move from the assembly line to quality inspection, management is almost exclusively hired from outside ZF. “UAW is all about fairness,” Miller said. “If I come in and do quality work, I should get good pay.”

In 2022, Mercedes-Benz reported 28% growth in annual sales since 2021. The average Mercedes now costs $76,590. But hardly any of that revenue makes it to the people who actually help make the cars.

“I would never be able to buy that car or operate that car,” said Sheila Smith, another ZF employee. “I couldn’t be able to afford an oil change. I couldn’t afford tires.”

Smith has worked at ZF for 18 years.

People don’t live in order to work. We work so that we can live, so we can put food on the table, enjoy a nice book, and go on vacation every so often. “I want to see the sun set and get drunk,” Smith said.

Because ZF workers went on strike, they won more time off and they won an end to wage tiers.

As UAW president, Fain is continuing the union’s long tradition of combining the dream of a better future with labor militancy. UAW president Walter Reuther both helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and made the Big Three recognize and bargain with the UAW despite repeated attempts on his life.

 When Fain spoke alongside President Biden on the picket line, he compared the UAW’s current struggle to the struggle to arm American soldiers in World War II. “The weapon we produce to fight that enemy [corporate greed] is the liberators — the true liberators — it’s the working-class people,” he said.

In World War II, workers making the weapons used against fascists in Europe and in the Pacific had their rights protected by the New Deal’s social safety net and the National War Labor Board. Sewell Avery, the chairman of department store chain Montgomery Ward, was physically carried out of his office by the National Guard because he refused to comply with collective bargaining agreements.

We’re all aware by now that it’s essential the United States does its part in stopping and reversing climate change. The world is quickly approaching cataclysmic tipping points for the global ecosystem. America is directly responsible for one-quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions but has the ability and the responsibility to be far more than one-quarter of the solution.

If transitioning away from fossil fuels means making life worse for American workers, a majority of people will never support the public investment and personal adjustments required. Decarbonization has to mean green plenty, more jobs paying more.

Shawn Fain and all of the UAW members on strike are showing us the only way forward: militant labor unions pushing back against corporate greed and pushing for a just green transition.

Just like in World War II, we must side with the working class against the billionaire class if we want to win the war against climate change. 

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