Periods of industrial restructuring without the active participation of unions, through collective bargaining, or government, through social programs, puts workers in a vulnerable position. It is in these periods of transition that deep-seated vulnerabilities of workers surface. Employers will look to wealthy investors, shareholders and governments to raise funds, allowing them to both retool operations and maintain healthy profits. On the other hand, workers rely on their savings, personal networks as well as other supports negotiated by unions and through established government programs. Oftentimes, employers will use these periods of transition to place new demands on workers – in effect, asking workers themselves to pay for this transition through lower wages, lesser benefits and weaker work standards. Without sufficient supports that empower workers, including through income security and skills training measures as well as union protection, these transition periods can severely curtail workers’ rights.
Autoworkers around the world are experiencing this tension. For instance, Tesla is butting heads with German autoworkers union IG Metall by refusing to accept industry standard wages and working conditions at its gigafactory in Berlin.29 In the United States, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union appeared headed for a collision course with GM following reports that its joint venture battery company, Ultium LLC, will decide workers’ wages, suggesting no role for the union or collective bargaining.30 GM later walked back those comments and supported the rights of Ultium workers to organize with UAW.31
Maximizing the benefit of the EV shift means looking beyond the sustained profit margins of employers. It means developing strategies and financial supports for workers who are most vulnerable to industrial transitions. It also means preserving workers’ fundamental rights to collective bargaining, decent working conditions and fair wages.
29 See Business Insider (April 3, 2021): https://www.businessinsider.com/tesla-gigafactory-berlin-union-battle-ig-metall-2021-4
30 See Associated Press (April 16, 2021): https://apnews.com/article/business-technology-general-news-8924829d24cb054a4a997f14f1bd1d12
31 See Detroit Free Press (May 25, 2021): https://www.freep.com/story/money/cars/general-motors/2021/05/25/gm-battery-factories-uaw-ultium/7439602002/
The federal government must develop and coordinate, along with provinces, the delivery of a constellation of job transition supports for autoworkers affected by job displacement resulting from a shift to ZEV or other significant technological change. These supports would include tailored income maintenance, labour market readiness, skills upgrading, relocation assistance, early retirement bridging, and other supports necessary to successful labour market adjustment. Dedicated federal and provincial funding to create community-based, union-run unemployed worker help centres can support these efforts. These centres would serve as local job-skills transition hubs and recruitment platforms, built on a successful model of peer-to-peer learning and support. Building structural links between this broader adjustment program and the labour market skills assessment coordination is crucial.