American auto workers and the UAW have been struggling – and even striking – to try to save their members' jobs. In the last round of negotiations with GM and Chrysler the union won job guarantees for a segment of its shrinking membership. But tragically, most of the jobs it saved are jobs of the past, not jobs the future.
The UAW rescued jobs that will soon evaporate as the US transitions into a green economy. Most are for building inferior gas guzzlers that not enough people want to buy. GM did announce during the negotiations that it would produce a new electric car called the Volt at a Michigan plant beginning in 2010. But according to some, the technology and the production plans are still very tentative. (It should also be noted that GM announced this week that it would open a major new research facility to develop green technologies—in China. GM’s US and Australian engineers who currently do this kind of work are worried.) By failing to mount a full scale challenge to GM’s product decisions and by joining GM in opposing stricter mileage standards, the UAW has helped make it likely that whatever jobs it “saved” under the new contract will soon be eliminated by environmental regulation – and global competition from vehicles with a smaller carbon footprint.
Job security for autoworkers no longer means simply limiting outsourcing, it requires shifting to cleaner, more energy efficient vehicles that offer genuine anchor for future job security. The UAW could have used this contract to demand that GM produce quality cars that address global warming concerns and that people want to buy. Instead, it let the automakers cast it in the role of “junior dinosaur.”
There is an alternative. Labor should actively promote the transition to a green economy. By doing so it can help create and retain decent union jobs with a future. The good news is that some parts of the labor movement are already hard at work on new strategies.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, rarely a friend of labor, recently described the labor-backed Oakland Apollo Alliance’s successful creation of a "green-collar" union jobs program to train young low-income workers to install solar panels and weatherize buildings. A campaign by unions and allies persuaded the Oakland city government to kick in $250,000. The effort has recently gone national, launching the "Green for All" campaign designed to pressure Congress to allocate $125 million to train 30,000 young people a year in green trades.