Image by @pch.vector of, and Mariestella Colón Astacio of AutoMobility Advisors
Image by @pch.vector of, and Mariestella Colón Astacio of AutoMobility Advisors

For the first time in history, workers from Detroit’s Big Three automakers have decided to go on strike simultaneously. After failing to reach a new deal by 11:59 pm this past Thursday night, United Auto Workers’ President Shawn Fain directed workers from the largest union in America to walk off the line at three assembly plants: the GM factory in Wentzville, Missouri, a Stellantis plant in Toledo, Ohio, and a Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan. As a part of Shawn Fain’s “standup strike” strategy, only 13,000 of the 150,000 workers in the UAW are on strike right now, but more shutdowns are threatened at a moment’s notice if negotiations do not proceed as planned. UAW workers are striking for a variety of improved benefits including a 40% increase in wages, better retiree healthcare, and the restoration of lost pension benefits. Many within the UAW see the successes of the OEMs, especially with the increasingly massive adoption of EVs as the perfect time to field their demands for matching improvements in pay and benefits. Antiquated mindsets have left the average worker in the dust, but OEMs have a once in a generation opportunity to reframe their relationship with workers and unions as this strike progresses.

United Auto Workers members and others gather for a rally after marching in the Detroit Labor Day Parade on September 4, 2023 in Detroit, Michigan. PHOTOGRAPH: BILL PUGLIANO/GETTY IMAGES

For the last century, the relationship between worker and employer has evolved quite significantly. The advent of collective bargaining in the automotive workplace during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s laid the groundwork for the modern relationships between unions like the UAW and Detroit’s Big 3 OEMs. Decades of negotiations and strikes defined the pay, hours, and benefits that the average worker receives in 2023, but as technology rapidly advances within the smart vehicle and EV spaces, the needs of these workers (and of the OEMs) have suddenly been turned upside down. OEMs have traditionally considered their factory employees blue collar workers, more akin to electricians, machinists, or even plumbers. This mindset is outdated however, as cars increasingly do not require the assembly of engine parts and transmissions, but instead of high-tech motors and batteries. Perhaps thinking of line workers as high-tech employees is where the real future lies.

An employee works on an electric engine assembly line at automaker Stellantis plant in Tremery, eastern France, on January 27, 2022. ERIC PIERMONT / AFP via GETTY IMAGES

It is no secret that the realities of manufacturing are changing significantly. The last twenty years have seen the rise of automation within manufacturing. More and more “robots” and other high tech industrial systems are being implemented, requiring fewer and fewer people to do the same jobs. For example, an engine assembly line that required 100 people in 1995 may only need a fraction of that total to function today. Even on traditional ICE assembly lines, what is required of the workers has been changing for years. Now, as EVs gain traction and automakers dedicate more and more of their time, capacity, and resources to their development and production, these workers will need to be reoriented and retrained to do things essential to EV production. As a part of an eventual deal reached with the UAW, OEMs will need to consider how high tech cars require more high tech workers, and how the benefits afforded to their tech employees should align with the technological intricacies of modern EVs.

17 JAN 2023  Employees work at the assembly line of the Volkswagen ID 4 electric car in Emden, Germany, last year. DAVID HECKER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

According to Representative Debbie Dingell (D-MI), battery plant employees in Lordstown, OH are making $16/hour, while employees at a neighboring McDonalds are making $23/hour. Pay issues like this are partially a symptom of the enormous cost undertaken by OEMs to retool their factories for EV production, modernize old facilities, comply with Federal regulations on material sourcing, and incorporate all of the advanced “smart” mobility technologies that consumers now demand into new vehicles. Detroit’s Big 3 along with other auto manufacturers have justified the lagging pay and benefits as an inevitable cost-saving measure, arguing that consumers will struggle to afford new EVs if union demands are met. Moreover, the Big 3 are competing against competitors that do not have unionized labor, squeezing profitability even further. While these concerns do have some merit in the short term, a reoriented mindsight shows that treating plant employees as high tech workers and investing in them as such will pay off in the long run. And unlike McDonald’s, which already struggles to staff their franchises, OEMs will have an increasingly hard time hiring high-tech workers for entry level wages, potentially leading to harmful staffing shortages. The requirements of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) will continue to constrict OEMs and incentivize them to build more EVs in America, and by investing in workers today, OEMs will be better prepared to shift over to all electric vehicle production within the next 10-15 years.

United Auto Workers (UAW) members on a picket line outside the Ford Motor Co. Michigan Assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, US, on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. Emily Elconin | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Strikes are a complex matter. Disagreeing leaders are forced to come to a compromise on nearly non-negotiable terms, sometimes accepting sub-optimal outcomes. Complexity doesn’t even begin to describe the difficulties of negotiating a deal between three of the largest corporations in the world and 150,000 workers in 2023. Despite this though, there are solutions which are mutually beneficial to the OEMs and UAW alike. With some shrewd negotiations and a focus on a better future, the OEMs and the workers will be able to come to an agreement and work together to forge a path through this brave new world.

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