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Issues of the Environment: Gains for people and the environment in the UAW contracts with the Detroit Three

The Ecology Center’s Climate and Energy Program Director.
The Ecology Center
Charles Griffith, The Ecology Center’s Climate and Energy Program Director.


  • On Sept. 14, 2023, the United Auto Workers union (UAW) called a strike that included Ford, Stellantis and GM employees. It lasted 6 weeks. The union's work stoppage intensified at a time when the Big 3 is looking establish dominance in the burgeoning electric vehicle. The companies' biggest competitors in the EV space are Tesla and overseas automakers like Hyundai and Toyota, which don't employ unionized workers. Electric vehicles will constitute half of all auto sales worldwide by 2035, according to a Goldman Sachs estimate. The UAW strike caused an estimated $4.2 billion in losses to the Big 3 and resulted in $488 million in lost wages for workers. The work stoppage also rippled and caused layoffs at auto supplier companies. But the dispute also led to breakthroughs, with GM earlier this month agreeing to place its electric vehicle battery plants under a national contract with the UAW.  (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.cbsnews.com/news/uaw-strike-update-gm-tentative-agreement/)
  • Aside from the 2023 strike, the future of American auto manufacturing as a driver of economic success is concerning, and the UAW is attempting to head off the trauma of a switch to EV’s where unionized auto work looks very different. 
  • The Ecology Center signed onto an open letter of support for the UAW, which included the following: “We firmly support the UAW members’ demands and believe that the success of these negotiations is of critical importance for the rights and well-being of workers and to safeguard people and the environment. Only through meeting these demands will the United States ensure a just transition to a renewable energy future. Lack of fair wages, job security, and dignified working conditions have left workers and our communities reeling. Worse, in recent months, workers and their communities have experienced unprecedented extreme heat, smoke pollution, flooding, and other disasters. The leaders of your companies have historically made decisions that exacerbated both of these crises over the past few decades — driving further inequality and increasing pollution. That is why we are standing in solidarity with the UAW and all workers and communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis and the necessary transition.” (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.labor4sustainability.org/uaw-solidarity-letter/)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. And today, we're going to look at how the recent labor agreements between the United Auto Workers Union and the Detroit Three may impact the future health of our environment and our people. I'm David Fair. And during the negotiations, the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center signed on to an open letter supporting the UAW, saying the demands were important to not only the rights and well-being of workers, but to also better safeguard the environment. Now, The Ecology Center is an environmental advocacy and action organization, and we thought it would be interesting to see what it thinks now that the contracts have been settled and we're moving forward. Our guest today is Charles Griffith, and Charles serves as the climate and energy program director at the Ecology Center. And always good to talk with you, Charles.

Charles Griffith: David, it's always great to talk with you as well. And I'm glad to be back.

David Fair: What was The Ecology Center's perspective on the auto industry prior to the most recent labor negotiations and subsequent strike?

Charles Griffith: Oh, well, that is a big topic, David.

David Fair: Go big or go home!

Charles Griffith: Yeah, indeed. I mean, you know, you mentioned that we're an environmental advocacy group. We care about climate change and environmental protection, but we do also care about people. You know, our mission is to protect people and the planet. And, you know, there's not a planet worth protecting if the people are going to be suffering and not able to support their families and do all the things that we need to do. The bottom line is that we did support the UAW in this strike and the kinds of things that they were seeking in terms of wage and benefit improvements. You know, we stand by that.

David Fair: From the environmental perspective, did you feel as though the auto industry was making the commitment to the changes necessary for a more sustainable and healthier planet?

Charles Griffith: Yes and no. I think that we've seen a huge change in the auto industry generally and with the Big Three, more specifically, in terms of their commitments to bring out increasing number of new electric vehicle models. They're investing billions of dollars into their future production plans to meet that commitment. So, there are lots of signs that they are serious and are making steps to make this transition real. At the same time, I think we should always be somewhat skeptical of promises that are made, and we need to back up those promises with policies that will ensure that we get where we need to go.

David Fair: This is WEMU's Issues of the Environment, and our conversation with The Ecology Center's Charles Griffith continues talking about promise and policies, and that is tied to the body politic. The transition is obviously tied to some rather lofty climate mitigation goals, and we can cite all the science we want, but outcomes are going to be determined in part in the political arena. What does the Big Three deals with the UAW say to those in the body politic?

Charles Griffith: Well, you know, one takeaway is certainly labor unions aren't going away, that they may, in fact, be getting stronger. And they're being more innovative and creative in the way that they not only negotiate with the employers, but also to organize new workers and get them excited about being part of a union as opposed to what I think unions would suggest is that without strong power on the part of workers, there's kind of a race to the bottom that occurs where employers will sort of seek to undercut each other in terms of the wages that they might have to pay or the other promises that they make to their workers. You know, residents here in Michigan have a strong presence of the automobile sector here, and our communities really rely on having workers that are paid well enough that they can support the other businesses in their communities that rely on them, maybe even radio stations like the one we're talking on today, and certainly supporting organizations like mine, with sufficient incomes to be able to donate to causes that they believe in.

David Fair: One of the things The Ecology Center focuses on is environmental justice. We know that people of color and people who live in lower income areas tend to get the brunt of lower air quality and are more subject to public health issues as a result of the pollution in their areas. When it comes to matters of environmental justice, do you see a room for some real improvement included in the agreements that the auto industry just reached with the UAW?

Charles Griffith: Well, I hope so. As you mentioned, this is really a core value of ours at The Ecology Center. We never want for people that are most impacted by the brunt of pollution and other sources of environmental justice to be left behind. And so, we take it upon ourselves to advocate, first and foremost, for those folks that are most impacted. The new agreements will hopefully go a good ways toward improving the conditions of folks in those communities, again, as we were just talking about. You know, another provision that I did want to mention that may have some overlap with this topic we're discussing is the fact that the UAW was able to get commitments from the Big Three automakers to bring in the workers under their new battery plants into their master agreements. And this really can't be understated how important these agreements were. And, in fact, you know, as the EV transition continues, we're going to see a loss of some jobs in those engine and transmission plants and kind of an existential threat. If those good jobs sort of go away and are replaced by sort of second tier, less secure jobs and nonunion jobs potentially, then that is hardly a success, I would say.

David Fair: We're talking with Charles Griffith from the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. There's a great number of hurdles we still have to jump. The process of getting the materials for EV batteries can be dangerous for the environment. We are still using a lot of fossil fuel in the creation of electric vehicles. We don't have a sufficient EV charging infrastructure. We don't have an electric grid that can handle the anticipated increase in demand. Can we get those issues addressed in time to meet the challenges of a climate crisis?

Charles Griffith: Well, David, thanks for mentioning those challenges that we face. I mean, I do think we are addressing those issues in various forms, both legislative and regulatory. Just as an example, at the Ecology Center, we spent a lot of time working on utility rate cases and other proceedings with the Public Service Commission. And we know that the utilities have been investing in a lot of EV infrastructure with the support and guidance of the commission. And we continue to push for those investments to continue and to scale up, thus ensuring that there's infrastructure out there. We also have federal investments that are starting to come into play to help build out charging infrastructure. And then, automakers themselves are also part of the puzzle and are increasingly investing in charging infrastructure. I think we're in decent shape, but we have to continue to be strident in pushing those programs and policies forward. And I think there's still plenty that we can do as a state and as a country to make this go in a more seamless fashion. Of course, there will always be hiccups in the road. And any new technology will go through sort of the learning curve and mishaps that can be problematic. But that's sort of the history of all technology, and I think we're going to get there.

David Fair: Well, it is most certainly a costly transition. And consumer prices, as I'm sure you are aware, are already taking a dramatic toll on a significant portion of the population. How should we be looking at creating an affordability balance as we work toward industry goals and climate crisis goals?

Charles Griffith: I'm glad you brought that up, David, because, you know, a lot of folks like to kind of focus on the higher cost of electric vehicles. And, you know, I'm not denying that it's not an affordability challenge for many folks, myself included. But what folks may not be aware of is the fact that fueling our electric vehicles with electricity offers opportunities for consumer savings. Consumer Reports has put out some really good information about how for popular models, not just, you know, sort of high end models of EVs, but more popular, sort of middle income vehicles offer the opportunity to save money for consumers in less than five years. So, while that upfront cost may seem daunting and discouraging for many, if you can earn back your investment in less than five years, which is less than the term of a lease for most auto buyers today, then I would pose the question, "How can we afford not to take advantage of a new technology like this that can save consumers money?" I was just at the bill signing for the new Michigan clean energy legislation that the governor signed off on. And, you know, one of the complaints about this from the detractors is, "Oh, this is just going to cost consumers more money." Well, there's good research that suggests that it's just the opposite. You know, we shouldn't always assume that this transition is going to be costly. It's going to require investment. The payoff is really big. You know, I consider it a win-win when we can solve climate change and save people money and provide good paying jobs all at the same time. That's what we should always be trying to seek.

David Fair: Charles, I always appreciate our conversations, so thank you for the time doing it again today.

Charles Griffith: I appreciate it, David.

David Fair: That is Charles Griffith, climate and energy program director at the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center. To learn more about our topic of conversation today, visit our web site at wemu.org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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