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Opinion | Transition to EVs should be good for climate AND unions

Autoworkers must be able to support their families in the transition to a clean energy future, which is why environmentalists must support the United Auto Workers (UAW) union as they bargain for new contracts. 

Christy McGillvray, Sean McBrearty
Christy McGillivray is political and legislative director for the Sierra Club, and Sean McBrearty is legislative and policy director, Clean Water Action

In the 20th Century, Michigan earned its reputation as the arsenal of democracy because our workers put it all on the line to support the Allies in WWII. Now it’s time for Michigan to do it again. This time the threat is climate change, and Michigan is poised to become the arsenal of the clean energy economy, but only if the electric vehicle transition includes good union contracts for workers.

The stakes are high. If we leave working families behind we won’t properly tackle climate change. This is because climate change is fueled by flawed incentives that encourage corporations to hide the real cost of doing business; workers and the planet suffer the long -term consequences of pollution while CEO pay and short-term private shareholder profits skyrocket. Our UAW brothers and sisters building the clean energy transition are our first line of defense in fighting catastrophic climate impacts — because what drives climate change drives the race to the bottom for workers.

Prioritizing wages and working conditions for UAW members makes everyone healthier and safer. Afterall, the only people closer to toxic pollution than frontline communities are the employees working within these facilities. The national UAW contract calls for a comprehensive approach to worker safety including a hazardous materials control committee with authority to protect human health and safety. These protections benefit everyone’s health, and strong union contracts will make the economic future bright for everyone in Michigan.

The Inflation Reduction Act provides billions in public investments to retool our economy for clean, renewable energy, and for this reason we support taxpayer dollars going towards EV incentives. However, public dollars must have public benefits. Our taxpayer dollars must build a clean energy transition for everyone. If we don’t support the fight for good union jobs, we risk public taxpayer dollars supercharging private shareholder profits while communities suffer. This is why EV workers should be included in national UAW contracts, as Senate leaders have called for.

Underpaying and endangering workers hurts all Michiganders — we live the downstream consequences of this in the Great Lakes State. In decades past our jobs went overseas, CEO salaries kept rising, and Michiganders were left footing the bill for the clean up. Along with extreme storms fueled by climate change, we’re burdened with 65 toxic Superfund locations, alarming cancer rates in industrial areas near polluted waterways, 24,000 abandoned, contaminated sites across the state, and corporations that still dump toxic waste in violation of federal laws. Polluters still owe us for their irresponsible 20th Century business model. 

If Michigan wants to thrive in the 21st Century we need a new model. Building a real clean energy economy means demanding corporate accountability for human and ecological impacts of production — and that starts by protecting and supporting workers with good union contracts. 

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