Democrats, unions and environmental groups are pushing back on the notion that jobs in the clean energy sector are inherently worse for workers, while acknowledging conditions and wages need to improve.
The effort comes as President Joe Biden visits Michigan in support of UAW workers on Tuesday and former President Donald Trump is expected to skip the second Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday and instead head to the state, where he will hold a rally in an attempt to court striking auto workers.
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain and Michigan Democrats said Trump was not welcome on the picket line, but Trump said he wished to speak to workers that are being “sold down the river” by their union’s leadership.
Among Trump’s criticisms is that the UAW is not taking a stronger stance against electric vehicles, arguing that these jobs will be lower quality and that the administration is choosing the opportunity to reduce emissions over workers’ pay.
Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, J.D. Vance of Ohio and Ted Cruz of Texas have also used the strike as an opportunity to renew their criticism of the administration’s EV policies, which includes the goal that half of all new cars sold by the end of the decade are zero-emission models.
Automakers are in the midst of a massive transition to electric vehicles and other zero-emission models. While many announced voluntary goals of their own prior to Biden’s election, the shift is encouraged in part through federal tax credits included in last year’s climate, tax and health care reconciliation law known as the Inflation Reduction Act.
Supporters of the transition say the issue at the moment is not one of job quantity. Job growth in zero-emission vehicles has significantly outpaced internal combustion engine vehicles, according to a report released this month by the nonpartisan business group E2. While the gas- and diesel-powered vehicle industry grew by 1.6 percent last year, the electric vehicle industry grew by 26.8 percent.
Amid the transition, the UAW has expressed concerns that many of the jobs at these new facilities offer lower pay and fewer benefits to workers compared with jobs manufacturing internal combustion engines.
Jason Walsh, executive director of the coalition of labor unions and environmental advocacy groups known as the BlueGreen Alliance, said the issue applies across the clean energy sector, where emerging technologies typically have lower rates of unionization.
He cited Bureau of Labor Statistics figures showing that the annual wage of the fossil fuel electric power generation industry is over $96,000, while solar and wind were roughly $64,000.
“That is significant,” Walsh said. “Now, the good news is that it’s a gap we can close. There is nothing inherent to the renewable energy industry versus the fossil energy sector that should result in workers being paid less.”
The UAW has repeatedly rejected the view that green jobs are implicitly anti-worker. It said manufacturers must raise standards for all manufacturing jobs when opposing a bill passed by the House this month that would block California from receiving an EPA waiver allowing it to finalize standards to phase out fossil fuel-powered vehicles.
“UAW is committed to make EV jobs good union jobs with the same pay and safety standards UAW members have fought for and won for generations,” the union said.
Congressional Democrats and the administration initially proposed that the tax credit for EVs would apply to union-made vehicles, although that language was eventually removed in favor of tying it to domestic manufacturing and mineral sourcing requirements.
In a bid to support EV jobs at unionized factories, the administration announced a $15.5 billion package last month that includes grants and loans to support conversion projects. The grants include a caveat that during the competition, higher scores will be given to projects that are likely to retain collective bargaining agreements or those that currently pay top quartile wages in their industry.
Biden and congressional Democrats repeated their calls for the transition to be fair to workers, with Biden referring to it as a possible “win-win for the auto workers and the auto companies.”
“This is the moment where the rubber hits the road and it’s not either we care about the global climate or we care about the worker,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich. “This is that moment of transition where we have to do both.”
The UAW has made some gains at electric vehicle facilities. Last month, workers at a joint battery venture between General Motors and LG Energy Solution in Lordstown, Ohio ratified an interim agreement that immediately raised wages by $3 to $4 an hour.
And unions have made inroads in other sectors of the renewable energy industry. Danish wind company Ørsted A/S entered into a project labor agreement last year with North America’s Building Trades Unions to construct the company’s offshore wind farms using union labor.
At the time NABTU Secretary-Treasurer Brent Booker referred to the deal as “groundbreaking,” noting that onshore wind had largely been constructed using nonunion labor.
But environmental and climate groups, who have largely come out in favor of the UAW strike, acknowledge there is still greater action needed to ensure the vehicles needed to reduce emissions are manufactured at facilities that pay workers well.
“This economic transformation is really an opportunity to build these new industries from the ground up, with good jobs, with labor standards attached, and providing for workers in this new economy,” said Trevor Dolan, industry and workforce policy lead at Evergreen Action. “So there absolutely is a tension there, but there’s also an opportunity that we haven’t seen since World War II, to remake the U.S. economy to be fair and more just for workers.”