Interview with an autoworker

UAW member Chris Viola speaks with Planet Detroit on the UAW contract fight, EV workers and climate action.

Earlier this month, the United Auto Workers presented contract demands to the Big Three automakers that include eliminating tiered wage and benefit structures, restoring cost of living allowances and retiree medical benefits, allowing more paid time off, which could create a 32-hour work week, and increasing wages 40 percent over the next four years.

Lower wages and limited workplace protections for workers in electric vehicle and battery plants have become key points of contention for UAW representatives. Last week, UAW members voted 97% in favor of authorizing a strike if the union fails to secure a new contract by September 14.

A spokesperson for General Motors previously said the UAW’s demands would “threaten our ability to do what’s right for the long-term benefit of the team. A fair agreement rewards our employees and enables GM to maintain our momentum now and into the future.”

Planet Detroit spoke with Chris Viola, a General Motors auto worker and member of UAW Local 22.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What are some of your concerns for EV and battery plant workers regarding the tier system and joint ventures like Ultium (GM and LG’s EV battery operation)?

The main concern is these jobs currently pay less than people who work in auto were making 17 years ago. When I was hired in 2006, I made more, which is not adjusted for inflation.

They’re still under the UAW but have fewer rights in the workplace. They have fewer stewards. The steward is basically your lawyer. And the steward cannot talk to everybody if their workload is too high.

Whoever’s in the bargaining team can bargain for additional safety measures beyond OSHA (0ccupational Safety and Health Administration) standards. Stewards, who can also be on the bargaining committee, are tasked with enforcing these parts of the agreement alongside workers. (Last week, Ultium workers at the Lordstown, Ohio plant secured a 25% wage increase.)

Autoworker and UAW member Chris Viola.

Are there specific dangers associated with EV and battery manufacturing?

These are very high-voltage batteries. This is something that, if you aren’t careful, has an arc that could electrocute you. That’s a hazard that needs to be respected and planned around.

(Arcing is when electricity jumps from one connection to another, often at extremely high temperatures. The UAW recently published a paper detailing chemical hazards at the Lordstown plant, which experienced a chemical spill last week. )

Taxpayers are heavily subsidizing the EV industry with tax credits for electric vehicles. Do you think the White House and lawmakers support the workers who make these things?

Not currently. We’re giving [automakers] billions of dollars. The Ford battery plant in Marshall will be paying $45,000 on average. Which is weird to me because an auto worker can make $10,000 to $20,000 more than that at their full rate.

Another benefit the subsystems (or subsidiaries owned by an auto company) workers don’t enjoy nearly as much as other workers is profit-sharing – it’s is a quarter of what ours is. (Ford Motor Company’s Marshall, Michigan plant has received $1.7 billion in local and state tax credits and could get as much as $6.7 billion in federal support. Last week, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling that will make companies that interfere with a union election automatically recognize the union.)

Can workers play a role in pushing for climate action? And do you see a connection between climate action and worker safety?

I do. I see it connected because, in Detroit, we now have to monitor the smoke from the wildfires. And I’d rather we not have to think about that sort of thing. And workers can be a part of that by learning their own power.

I worked for a reform caucus, UAWD, Unite All Workers for Democracy, and we pushed for a referendum so that we would be allowed to vote for our own leadership. That passed overwhelmingly 2 to 1, which gave people hope that they could change things.

When we demonstrate our power and show that we’re ready to do what’s necessary to win the contract and get our demands, that will embolden people to take similar matters into their own hands.

We can fight for and win these things that we all care about.

Could unions help fight for something like the Green New Deal, which combines environmental and economic issues?

I think it must be one of the most important things to fight for. Typically, with the UAW, we end up just endorsing whatever Democrat runs against the Republican in the election. This time (UAW President) Shawn (Fain) announced that we weren’t ready to endorse Joe Biden. I think that gives us a bit of leverage.

You can say, ‘Hey, we’ve got some things that we would like you to take care of before we go ahead and tell the rest of our union ‘vote for Joe Biden,’ or whomever. By exercising that kind of leverage and not just saying, ‘We think they should vote for that person because they’re the least awful option’, we’re giving whoever wins our endorsement an opportunity to do so.

And we also demonstrate to the workers who are union members that our endorsement means something. I think that will drive them to the polls more than our old strategy.

Around a third of UAW members voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Can those members be persuaded to support environmental policies?

I think everyone is persuadable, and our president Shawn Fain certainly has no qualms with engaging our membership politically. But I’d also like to see the members themselves work through committees to build campaigns to fight for a just transition that puts workers’ needs first. 

Many of our members can be won over from the other side of the fence, but also we have to fight for and alongside workers who don’t vote or vote reluctantly. First, we must understand what motivates workers to oppose things like the Green New Deal. 

Here’s an example: Members of our political action committee, Community Action Program (CAP), can work on a campaign to find out where the membership is regarding their feelings on the Green New Deal through surveys. Workers are concerned about job losses and lower earnings. This is a major reason why we’re discussing shorter work weeks and eliminating EV tiers.

I like that the membership is being challenged to get in the fight for a good contract. For too long, we’ve seen bargaining and politics as something someone else simply did for us. In reality, the power is within us. 

Union representation in the solar and wind industry is currently very low. Could a UAW win impact those industries?

People get inspired by seeing workers sticking together and coming out on top. Solar workers or people who work on wind turbines and other forms of renewable energy could see that and say, ‘Yeah, why not us too?’

The UAW is so big in Michigan that it makes sense for us to pursue unionizing these workers because the solar work will power our vehicles. Those things are strongly connected, and I don’t see why not.

The UAW suffered a significant scandal a few years ago when officials were convicted of embezzling union funds. Is the union in a different place now?

We definitely are. We had a referendum so that we could vote on our own leadership. We’ve given ourselves the ability to, if it happens, vote bad leadership out. That’s one of the hallmarks of democracy right there.

Our president has been getting in the national news. (TV personality) Jim Cramer’s been talking about him as this scary, awful man coming for all the rich people’s money. And just the fact that I’m seeing national news about our president that’s not scandalous is good.

Is this a critical moment for the union regarding the EV transition and what it means for workers?

It is 100% because if we don’t do it now, we’re just kicking the can down the road. We’ve been kicking the can down the road since at least 2007 (when the economic downturn triggered the auto-bailout and the beginning of the tiered wage system). 

We had tiers, and they’ve only gotten worse and more convoluted over time. I think everyone’s ready for those to be gone, and we are ready to fight and win. 

That’s going to get justice for all the workers, no matter what tier they are, whether or not they work in EVs, because there are going to be more EVs, and there are going to be EV tiers if we don’t.

And we are getting prepared for bigger fights, like fighting for a Green New Deal or unionization in the green power industry.


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