In a groundbreaking turn of events, General Motors (GM) has agreed to include electric vehicle (EV) battery manufacturing in its main agreement with the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, a move that has left both sides calling it a transformative victory. UAW President Shawn Fain made this announcement recently, signaling a significant shift in the landscape of auto manufacturing.
The Historic Shift in EV Manufacturing
The UAW has long expressed concerns about the shift toward EVs, particularly due to the prevalence of non-union labor in EV production, much of which occurs outside the United States. The fear has been that traditional engine and transmission plants would be phased out in favor of lower-paying battery manufacturing jobs.
Initially, the UAW had prepared to call for strikes at one of GM’s major plants in Arlington, Texas, which is responsible for assembling full-sized SUVs. However, the last-minute agreement with GM regarding EV battery manufacturing has led to a change of plans. Fain noted that this development would have a profound impact on the UAW membership.
The UAW launched its strike last month, initially affecting a small number of facilities, after failing to reach an agreement with the major auto manufacturers (often referred to as the Big Three) before the expiration of their previous contract. Over the past two Fridays, Fain called on additional members to walk out, eventually leading to 25,000 autoworkers participating in the strikes.
A Carefully Calculated Escalation
Throughout this strike, Fain and the UAW have been strategic in their approach. Fain mentioned that they’ve been cautious about how they escalate the strike to apply pressure on Ford, GM, and Stellantis (formerly FCA). Each escalation was designed to move the automakers closer to the union’s goals.
The UAW has closely analyzed the automakers’ vulnerabilities, focusing on their most significant profit centers and plants they would rather avoid shutting down. Fain noted, “We know their pain points, we know their moneymakers, and we know the plants they really don’t want to see struck. And they know we’ve got more cards left to play.”
GM’s Last-Minute Agreement
The recent agreement with GM regarding EV battery manufacturing came as a surprise, with Fain revealing that it was reached just 30 minutes before he was set to announce an expanded strike. GM had been lagging behind Ford and Stellantis in negotiations, prompting this eleventh-hour deal.
While GM has traditionally argued that workers in battery facilities are not GM employees due to their joint ventures with Asian battery companies, this new agreement changes the landscape. Now, UAW-represented workers will be involved in GM’s future EV battery plants, an essential step in securing jobs in an industry that is rapidly shifting towards electrification.
The Broader Landscape of Negotiations
The negotiations between the UAW and the Big Three have been multifaceted. Ford currently leads the negotiations with the highest wage increase offer on the table, a substantial 23% over four years, more than double their initial offer of 9%. However, the focus isn’t solely on wages; retirement benefits remain a core issue at all three automakers.
Approximately 20% of UAW members work in transmission or engine-related jobs, posing a unique challenge during the industry’s transition to EVs. GM’s agreement to include battery workers under the UAW umbrella has helped address this concern and provides job security to a significant portion of the workforce.
The Power of Strikes and Unified Action
Shawn Fain emphasized the significance of the ongoing strike, which marks a historic moment as the UAW strikes against all three major automakers simultaneously for the first time in its history. Despite criticisms of theatrics, Fain stressed that the power lies in the unity and collective action of working-class people. Strikes and the credible threat of strikes have played a pivotal role in pushing the automakers to the negotiating table.
GM, for instance, acknowledged losses of $200 million in the first two weeks of the strike. This financial pressure, combined with the fear of strikes affecting key plants, has been a driving force behind the negotiations.
A Path Forward
While the UAW has decided not to expand the strikes further at this time, there are still ongoing strikes at five assembly plants across the three companies, along with a network of parts distribution centers. Progress has been made, but Fain stressed, “We’re not there yet.”
The UAW has made significant strides in recent weeks, securing agreements on wage increases, cost-of-living adjustments, and, most notably, EV battery manufacturing. This transformational development reflects the changing landscape of the automotive industry and the importance of labor unions in shaping that future.
As negotiations continue, the UAW stands as a testament to the power of collective action and the ability to influence the direction of an industry undergoing a seismic shift towards electric vehicles.