By COLIN STAUB
The auto industry is gearing up for a major transition from gas- to electric-powered vehicles, and it’s primed to receive sizable public funds to support that. Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education & Research Center (LERC), sees that as an opportunity to expand organizing rights for U.S. auto workers.
In a recent report titled “Building Back Better or building back worse? The challenge of building a high-road EV industry with anti-union employers,” Lafer argues it’s a particularly good time to examine organizing rights within the automotive sector, given the federal support coming its way.
The report charts a decline in union representation within the auto sector over the past two decades, driven in part by manufacturers opening facilities in right-to-work states and engaging in anti-union campaigns. In 2000, roughly 33% of auto workers were unionized. By 2020, that number dropped to about 13%. In one instance of an anti-union campaign, Lafer describes a union effort at a Tesla facility, where the National Labor Relations Board found that the company illegally fired one union supporter, disciplined another for union activity, and barred employees from distributing union information to coworkers.
The Build Back Better Act, currently held up in the Senate, includes sizable subsidies for electric vehicle purchases. And the bipartisan infrastructure deal that passed in the fall includes $7.5 billion allocated to roll out electric vehicle charging stations nationwide.
Lafer says the electric vehicle sector’s taxpayer subsidy is an opportunity to put conditions on the industry, namely that its workers should be free to form a union without threats and intimidation.
The auto industry is already a major manufacturing powerhouse, with nearly 1 million jobs in auto and auto parts, and could add an estimated 150,000 more jobs with the switch to electric vehicles, Lafer estimates.
The question is, what will those jobs look like?
“As we stand on the cusp of reinventing the auto industry, we face a choice of either taking steps to ensure that this highly profitable sector provides family-wage jobs, or allowing employers to use federal investments, in part, to deny their employees the right to collective bargaining and continue eroding job standards in this industry and in the country,” he wrote.
Protections could come in the form of mandating that taxpayer dollars can’t be used to fund anti-union campaigns, Lafer said, or even a requirement that companies receiving public funding agree to terms of neutrality.
There’s a lot of interest, particularly among Democratic lawmakers, in having electric vehicle sector jobs be union, family-wage jobs, Lafer said. And there is likely interest on both sides of the aisle in ensuring these jobs stay in the United States, he added.
The businesses engaged in the electric vehicle industry are major companies, rather than small operators. And the potential for rapid expansion over the next decade suggests they’ll be bringing in plenty of money.
“There’s no question that there’s going to be enough profit in this industry that they could afford to pay decently and still be financially profitable,” Lafer said.