Originally published in The Guardian on December 23, 2021.
As the Biden administration attempts to increase incentives for the production of electric vehicles, labor unions and climate groups have teamed up to push for better wages and working conditions for autoworkers – and leave the door open for the nascent EV industry to unionize.
Last month, leaders from some of the largest environmental groups in the country sent a letter to top executives at Toyota, lambasting the automaker for appearing to support the electric vehicle revolution all while lobbying against a proposed tax credit for union-made electric cars.
The tax credit would give $4,500 to consumers who buy electric from unionized US plants – currently just Ford, General Motors and Stellantis NV would qualify – and has been hotly opposed by companies like Tesla, Honda, Hyundai and Nissan. But Toyota went a step further and began funding ads in papers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and trade press claiming the federal bonus would hurt non-union autoworkers. (All electric vehicles, union or not, would remain eligible for an existing $7,500 tax credit.)
Representatives from 12 groups – including the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and Evergreen Action – blasted Toyota for “greenwash[ing] its image” and called its lobbying “extensive and unacceptable”. The organizations rejected Toyota’s claim that incentivizing electric vehicles with union labor would hurt the nation’s climate targets, and said its “manipulation of the political system and undermining action on climate is not limited to the United States”.
This came on the heels of another letter from prominent climate groups, urging electric vehicle start-up Rivian to respect workers’ wishes should they decide to unionize, and permit what’s known as a card check process. Rivan, which went public last month in the biggest US IPO since Facebook, is poised to ramp up vehicle production in the next year.
Ten climate groups, including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA, Sunrise Movement and 350.org, signed on to the letter – and said therein that they had reached out to Rivian privately in August. After two months with no response, the groups decided to take their demand for labor peace public. The president of the United Auto Workers announced in the spring that his union was planning to organize EV workers.
As lawmakers in Congress continue to hash out a wide-ranging social spending bill, labor unions, climate groups and prominent liberal thinktanks have joined forces to make the case that reducing emissions while creating unionized manufacturing jobs in the US is not only possible – but better for consumers and manufacturers alike.
This isn’t the first time that labor and climate groups have found common ground – but it represents a revitalized alliance that could help strengthen both the fight for reducing emissions and for bolstering worker rights.
Transportation is the largest source of pollution in the country, and the growth of non-union auto work has been accompanied by a nearly 20 percent decline in wages in the auto industry since 1990. “The fight for environmental and economic justice –the right for every American worker to not just survive but to thrive – are inextricably linked,” wrote UAW president Ray Curry and Center for American Progress founder John Podesta in a joint-op-ed this summer.
Rivian is not the only vehicle manufacturer that green groups have been targeting, according to Katherine García, who leads the Transportation for All campaign at the Sierra Club. “Behind the scenes there are other vehicle manufacturers we’re working with on labor peace,” she told the Guardian, adding that they’ve been holding one-on-one meetings to make their case.
While environment and labor groups have not always seen eye-to-eye, the two have a history of shared interests. Josiah Rector, an urban historian at the University of Houston who has studied the 20th century environmental movement, noted that the UAW has previously fought against toxic chemicals and pollution in auto plants.
But in the 1970s, says Rector, automakers viewed the fight for cleaner air and other environmental standards as yet another threat to their bottom line, at a time when they were already hurting from two major oil crises, intensifying deindustrialization, and the closing of manufacturing plants. Automakers began to play “environmental blackmail” against their workers, insisting that any further regulation from the government would force companies to cut even more jobs. “UAW, under threat of job blackmail, helped the companies lobby for a weaker Clean Air Act, which really strained tensions with the environmental movement,” said Rector.
Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island, also noted that the decline in industrial unions has especially hurt the unions that were more progressive to begin with – widening the gap between climate progressives and labor. “That left you with the longtime more conservative unions, and as environmentalism has become more of a rich person’s movement it also became disconnected from working-class culture,” Loomis said.
“I think the reality is climate groups have now realized that’s politically untenable and they need to build working-class coalitions if they want to get climate change legislation passed,” he adds. In other words, Loomis said, whether the modern-day solidarity is an alliance of deeply shared values or of convenience, the fact is that “neither are particularly strong enough on their own to get laws passed.”
Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and national environmental groups, attributes the work they’ve been doing recently to many years of relationship building, but credits the Build Back Better Act for catalyzing their efforts in 2021.
“That has focused everyone’s attention, and there’s an understanding that we need to reverse this trend of offshoring and de-unionization that’s hollowed out communities across the country,” he said.
The White House has set an ambitious goal of making half of all new car sales electric by 2030. Even with the united front from labor and climate groups, and the strong backing of a unionized EV sector from Joe Biden, it’s not clear the union-made tax credit will make it through the Senate. West Virginia senator Joe Manchin has voiced opposition to the subsidy, saying that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used as an incentive for consumers. Republican governors with non-union auto facilities have also urged Congress to reject the tax credit, and Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, called Biden a “UAW … puppet” on Twitter. (Brian Rothenberg, a spokesperson for UAW, declined an interview, saying their focus is on passing the Build Back Better Act.)
For now labor and climate groups are scrambling to get the bill over the finish line, and make the case that in order to compete effectively in the global electric vehicle revolution, the US needs to invest more in the workers who make the cars on American soil.
Sam Ricketts, co-director of Evergreen Action, said while there have been signs of solidarity between unions and environmental organizations in recent years, the steps being taken in the electric vehicle debates, like climate groups pressuring companies directly and publicly, represent something new and more concerted. “This is new work happening in civil society, with groups recognizing that organizing can happen in the commercial sphere, not just the halls of Congress,” he said. “It’s leading-edge in that way.”
Rector, the University of Houston historian, said that if climate and labor groups want to surmount the problems that have plagued their solidarity efforts in the past, they’ll need a plan to defeat arguments that climate goals are zero-sum for union workers. “To solve the environmental blackmail problem, you need to have strong policies that undercut the argument coming from corporations and today from politicians like Joe Manchin,” he said. “And to do that, you need a strong coalition to push those policies through.”