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Supporting Workers Means Remaking Clean Auto Supply Chains

By Carly Oboth

Last fall, the United Auto Workers (UAW) won major gains in new contracts with the “Big Three” automakers – Ford, GM and Stellantis – after their groundbreaking six-week strike. The contracts afford massive jumps in wages, including for temporary workers, restore the cost of living adjustment, and protect the right to strike over future plant closures, all of which will transform working conditions for nearly 150,000 U.S. autoworkers.

The agreements come at a critical time for the auto industry – an industry responsible for as much as a third of global carbon pollution. As the world grapples with the challenges of climate change, there is a growing consensus from scientists, regulators, and increasingly, automakers and consumers, that the automotive sector must undergo a major overhaul to slash its emissions and address its climate impacts.

This is not the first time the auto industry has been at the forefront of a massive transformation. Fueled by the economic desperation of the 1930s and impacts from World War II and the years that followed, UAW led a series of pivotal strikes against the Big Three that led to huge increases in pay and benefits for blue-collar auto workers. The contracts UAW negotiated between the 1930s and 1950s not only raised standards for all auto workers but also helped pave the way for a new, prosperous middle class in the U.S. Particularly for majority Black communities like Detroit, union-won wage increases boosted the economic status of thousands of Black families nationwide. 

The contracts UAW recently negotiated with the Big Three mark an important step toward ensuring autoworkers aren’t left behind in the transition to zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs). But, while unionized auto workers in the U.S. have won concessions, there are countless workers powering auto supply chains, from the mines where battery minerals like cobalt, lithium, and nickel are sourced to processing facilities where raw minerals are turned into usable materials, who haven’t experienced the same gains.

Unfortunately, auto supply chains have historically been rife with environmental devastation and human rights abuses. As the ZEV transition grows, the demand for materials needed to power these vehicles could drive further harm to the environment, workers, and communities on the frontlines of this transition across the globe.

The climate emergency demands a just and equitable energy transition. It is not enough for automakers to care only about tailpipe emissions: they must ensure that their vehicles and their supply chains are truly clean. This means ensuring that the materials in their vehicles are sourced responsibly and that workers along their supply chains are adequately compensated and treated with dignity.

Leadership is needed from major automakers to demonstrate what clean cars and clean supply chains look like. As industry leaders, the Big Three have a responsibility to continue supporting all workers and use their influence to affect change across the industry, not only in the U.S., but globally.

Now is the perfect time for automakers to make these changes, because the switch from fossil fuel-dependent vehicles to battery-powered ones is an unprecedented opportunity to reexamine how their existing supply chains are managed and to implement best practices as they source new materials and build relationships with new suppliers.

A job at GM, Stellantis, or Ford once guaranteed a pathway to the middle class. Thanks to the courageous auto workers that went on strike last fall, auto sector jobs are becoming good jobs again. But automakers must look beyond their own operations; we need leadership from the Big Three to ensure workers’ rights are not only protected throughout their supply chains, but that they’re implementing policies that actually raise the bar for working conditions across the industry.