EVs, batteries, and union organizing: the class struggle heats up

UAW President Shawn Fain
UAW President Shawn Fain.

By Chris Fry

If 2023 was described as having the “summer of strikes” (which stretched into the fall and winter), then 2024 may become known as the “year of union organizing drives”.

2023 saw more than 500,000 workers stage more than 400 strikes, with many more winning historic contracts with threatened strikes. From the Hollywood writers and Screen Actors Guild strikes to the six-week UAW coordinated strike against the Big Three automakers, from the Kaiser Permanente health workers strike to the threatened strike by 300,000 Teamster workers that won a historic contract with UPS, these struggles demonstrated a dramatic increase in the eagerness by our class to engage the billionaires in battle for higher wages and benefits.

This comes at a time of growing public popularity for unions, with polls showing more than 70 per cent support.

The next step: Organizing new shops

In late September, at a crucial point in the historic UAW strike against the “Big Three” auto companies, Ford’s CEO Jim Farley complained about how he was “frustrated” by the union’s demands around the new battery plants, which manufacture the key component of the new electric vehicles (EVs):

“What’s really frustrating is that I believe we could have reached a compromise on pay and benefits, but so far, the UAW is holding the deal hostage over battery plants,” Farley told reporters in a news conference hours after the UAW announced an expanded strike on Friday.

Damn right!

UAW President Shawn Fain immediately responded by saying Farley was lying:

“(W)e are far apart on core economic proposals like retirement security and post-retirement healthcare, as well as job security in this EV transition, which Farley himself says is going to cut 40% of our members’ jobs,” Fain said in a statement, referencing a comment Farley made in November about EVs requiring fewer workers to make.

Ford and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler), along with General Motors, have set up “joint companies” with foreign firms precisely to do just that, to pay workers far less at battery plants than at their own ones. Plus, this arrangement reduces their risk in their investments in this technology. And they are often, but not always, setting up these plants in so-called “right to work” states, where laws and government officials are hostile to unions.

That is why Fain and the union’s negotiating team demanded that the new Big 3 contracts cover the battery plants.

During the strike, on October 6, sporting an “Eat the Rich” t-shirt, UAW President Shawn Fain announced on a live video to 52,000 union viewers that GM had agreed to include its battery plant workers in the national contract. By the end of the strike, Ford and Stellantis agreed to similar terms.

With the historic agreement in hand, Fain and the rest of the UAW leadership has vowed to expand the union into non-union plants across the country. As the industry web site “Tech Brew” reports:

Those contracts, which workers at Ford, GM, and Stellantis recently ratified, followed a six-week strike by the UAW across all three automakers. The deals include 27% in compounded wage increases through 2028, cost-of-living adjustments, a shorter pathway to top wages, and commitments from the companies to convert temporary workers to permanent status, among other gains.

The UAW then launched a bid to organize the rest of the industry: BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Lucid, Mazda, Mercedes, Nissan, Rivian, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo.

“To all the autoworkers out there working without the benefits of a union: now it’s your turn,” UAW President Shawn Fain said last month.

Many of these companies, in response to the UAW announcement, have now given modest raises to their workers, hoping to forestall the unionization of their plants. But these fall short of what the Big 3 contracts offer.

The UAW has filed “unfair labor practices” charges with the National Labor Relations Board against Hyundai, Volkswagen and Honda for harassing workers trying to sign up fellow workers for holding a union recognition election.

In addition to the UAW Big 3 strike and organizing new shops, Fain is supporting a variety of social justice struggles including putting the UAW on record for a U.S.-Israel ceasefire in relation to Palestine. Fain is also participating in a variety of events including being a scheduled speaker at the 21st annual MLK Day Detroit event January 15, 2024. MLK Day Detroit and https://uaw.org/uaw-president-shawn-fain-to-speak-at-detroit-mlk-day-rally-and-march-on-january-15/

Tesla and Elon Musk in the crosshairs

Tesla’s owner Elon Musk has not increased his factory workers’ pay. As he told a book summit in November:

“I think it’s generally not good to have an adversarial relationship between one group at the company and another group,” Musk said. “I disagree with unions because I don’t like anything which creates a lords and peasants sort of thing. I think unions naturally try to create negativity at a company.”

But Fain, during a Dec. 1 Q&A session in Detroit, said the unionization effort that is building across the country “is a lot bigger than Elon Musk.”

“The irony is (Musk) talks about lords and peasants, and that’s the current status,” Fain said. “While he’s getting extremely wealthy off the backs of his workers and he’s building rocket ships to fly his ass into outer space, workers continue to scrape to get by.” 

Musk, with a net worth of $223 billion — largely composed of Tesla stock — is the world’s richest man, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index, a title he first gained in 2021. 

A small group of Swedish Tesla service center workers, numbering only 120, have been engaged in a nine-week-old strike for union recognition. The incredible acts of solidarity by workers in Sweden and neighboring countries are sending a message of hope that could resonate in other countries that contain Tesla operations, including the U.S. As a CNN December 29 article reports:

[A] Tesla subsidiary in Sweden refused to sign a collective agreement with IF Metall. In response, some of the 120 mechanics employed by Tesla to service its cars in the country went on strike in late October and have not returned to work. 

So, a wave of “sympathy strikes” has followed. Swedish dock workers have blocked deliveries of Tesla cars at the country’s ports, electricians have refused to service charging stations, and postal workers have even stopped delivering license plates. “This is insane,” was Musk’s response to the latter development.

By early December, unions representing dockworkers in Denmark, Norway and Finland had announced plans to block all exports of Tesla cars to Sweden from their ports.

There are no Tesla factories in Sweden. But as this same article points out:

Bowing to union pressure in Sweden could embolden Tesla (TSLA) workers in Germany — home to the company’s only European factory — who, likewise, want a collective agreement on pay and other terms of employment. It could also fire up unionization efforts by Tesla’s US workforce.

The working class should not recognize national boundaries in our struggles. International solidarity is the most effective weapon we have to defeat billionaires like “Lord” Musk!

Fry, a retired auto worker, is a former UAW shop steward, bargaining committeeman, and strike vice-chairman.

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