Top Manufacturing News Stories of 2023: Autoworkers Strike, and Set the Tone for the Clean Energy Transition

By Brian Lombardozzi
Dec 29 2023 |
Autoworkers walk the picket line during President Biden’s visit with union members at the GM Willow Run Distribution Center in Michigan. Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

The UAW won higher wages and better benefits for its workers. But it also took steps to support workers potentially decades into the future.

There’s no doubt that one of the biggest news stories in 2023 was the United Autoworkers (UAW), whose members at General Motors (GM), Ford and Stellantis went on strike for nearly two months in 2023. It paid off, as the union negotiated new contracts that include sizable pay raises, cost-of-living adjustments and improved terms for temporary workers.

The impact of the strike is already being felt elsewhere, as some non-union auto companies, including Toyota, responded by raising worker pay. However, the benefits of this strategic win for the UAW are broader than salary bumps for the current workforce; the UAW’s efforts may end up shaping the American manufacturing landscape for decades to come.

During contract negotiations, UAW President Shawn Fain announced that GM will include electric vehicle battery production work in the UAW’s national master agreement with the company. That means that GM’s transition to electric vehicles will be a just transition; while gas-powered vehicles may go away, the union jobs at the company will not.

It’s a decision that will be felt beyond autos. The clean energy transition will not only affect factories making gasoline-powered cars, but also factories throughout the supply chain, and even fossil fuel industries.

Without a seat at the table, there is no guarantee that the working people in the traditional energy sector will be given an opportunity to be part of the developing clean energy economy. The places developers are installing wind turbines and solar panels are not necessarily where we see unionized, well-paying traditional energy jobs. The skills needed to mill and bore engines and motors for conventional gasoline vehicles are not an exact match for winding electric motors or handling electrical components in a battery-operated vehicle.

That’s why workers need to have a voice in the process. We need to make sure that workers are retrained in these new industries, and we need to identify what needs to happen to ensure there are proper investments in the communities and the workforce to handle all the aspects of that transition.  Voices from the community also need to be heard for any of this to be possible, and we need good policy in place to ensure that the jobs in clean energy manufacturing remain here in the United States. 

Workers have allies in this transition. Environmental groups showed their support for the UAW strike, arguing that factory workers must  be included in the transition to a clean economy.  A group of 100 labor, racial justice and environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sent an open letter to the heads of Ford, General Motors and Stellantis making this clear.

“We firmly support the UAW members’ demands and believe that the success of these negotiations is of critical importance for the rights and well-being of workers and to safeguard people and the environment,” the groups wrote. “Only through meeting these demands will the United States ensure a just transition to a renewable energy future.”

Policymakers have a role to play in encouraging U.S. investment, both through incentives like the Inflation Reduction Act and a willingness to enforce our nation’s trade laws. Our transition to a clean energy economy should not be used to bolster foreign state-owned enterprises, nor should it reward companies that have moved their operations, investment dollars, and jobs away to foreign countries that lack or completely disregard reasonable environmental and workplace safety regulations.

Global Impacts

It should be no surprise the Chinese government plans to dominate the global EV industry, and a worker-centered trade policy must play a role in our clean energy transition.

Here is an example to keep in mind: Cobalt is used in the manufacture of almost all lithium-ion rechargeable batteries used in the world today. As early as 2009, China cornered the global cobalt market via a deal with the then-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)  Joseph Kabila, swapping access to mining in exchange for development assistance. Chinese companies quickly seized ownership of 15 of the 19 primary industrial copper-cobalt mining concessions in the DRC. China now dominates not just mining excavation, but nearly the whole supply chain, as Chinese companies control 70 to 80% of the refined cobalt market and about half of the battery market. 

According to Siddharth Kara, a fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and at the Kennedy School, the DRC has more cobalt reserves than the rest of the planet combined, and Kara argues that there’s no such thing as a “clean” supply chain of cobalt from the country. In his new book, Cobalt Red, Kara acknowledges the important role cobalt plays in the transition to sustainable energy sources. Rather than renouncing cobalt entirely, he says people should focus on fixing the supply chain.

“We shouldn’t be transitioning to the use of electric vehicles at the cost of the people and environment of one of the most downtrodden and impoverished corners of the world,” he says. “The bottom of the supply chain, where almost all the world’s cobalt is coming from, is a horror show.”

Kara’s claims are corroborated by an Amnesty International report released in September 2023 in conjunction with the DRC-based Initiative for Good Governance and Human Rights (IBGDH) that details how the mining of minerals critical to electric vehicle batteries and other green technologies in the DRC has led to human rights abuses.

This brings us back to UAW’s victory. Having both workers and environmental groups at the table as we create the policy that will build the U.S. clean energy supply chain will mean we will make more sound decisions as we explore our own domestic capabilities to domestically source critical minerals like cobalt and lithium. Combined with a continued focus on a worker-centered trade policy, the transition to clean energy which be one in which our manufacturing communities thrive and the United States is better positioned to compete the global stage.