President Biden is making the case that fighting climate change can create jobs, countering a key Republican narrative surrounding the autoworker strike.
The president’s GOP opponents have sought to paint climate action as a job-killer, seizing on concerns over worker pay in the transition to electric vehicles in light of the ongoing United Auto Workers (UAW) strike.
But Biden, who has argued throughout his presidency that efforts to combat climate change can go hand in hand with workers’ interests, underlined that stance this past week in both words and actions.
He created a climate-jobs program that is expected to, in its first year, employ 20,000 people in jobs to fight climate change and protect the environment.
“We’re not just opening up pathways to decarbonization. We’re opening up pathways to good-paying careers,” White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi told reporters of the program.
Biden also launched a Partnership for Workers’ Rights alongside Brazil’s president. One of the issues the partnership aims to address is “advancing worker-centered approaches to the clean energy transition.”
“As I’ve told labor from the very beginning: When I think of climate change, I think of jobs,” Biden said in remarks announcing the labor partnership.
His comments starkly contrast recent rhetoric from his GOP rivals on the issue.
Former President Trump, looking to court Michigan voters, has repeatedly bashed Biden’s electric vehicle policies, saying on social media that they will ensure “the Great State of Michigan will not have an auto industry anymore.”
Other Republicans have also chimed in. Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) wrote in a recent op-ed that “those who have claimed there will be a ‘just transition’ to EVs should visit Northeast Ohio for a glimpse into the industry’s bleak future.”
“Up the road from the once-iconic Lordstown Assembly Complex, where 15,000 union workers once assembled millions of cars, now stands a battery plant that employs a fraction of the workers at a fraction of the wages,” he added.
Union leaders, however, have said they do not oppose a shift toward climate-friendly cars, they just want workers to be paid fairly for electric vehicle jobs.
The union has accused automakers of using the transition to electric vehicles to cut wages, particularly citing the 2019 closure of a General Motors (GM) plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where it said workers were on track to make more than $30 per hour. It noted that after the closure, a new battery plant from a joint GM-LG venture opened in the area, but said workers there only make 16.50 per hour. The joint-venture, Ultium, has said that it “will work in good faith with the UAW to reach a competitive agreement.”
The discontent related to this shift is one of several issues fueling the strike, which comes as the union and major car manufacturers have yet to reach an agreement on a new contract. But, the strike is related to pay issues more broadly, as workers are calling for wage increases, getting rid of temporary employment, pensions and cost-of-living adjustments.
The UAW has called on the Biden administration to do more to ensure that workers are protected during the EV transition.
In his own comments last week at the start of the strike, Biden similarly backed the transition but said he thinks it should be “fair” and a “win-win” for auto workers and automakers. And on Friday it was reported that Biden is set to speak to striking workers in Michigan next week. The president said he plans to “join the picket line and stand in solidarity” with UAW workers.
Democratic strategists say that Biden and the party at large should be making this case that climate action can be a positive for workers, and should generally be looking to frame the energy-transition in economic terms.
Democratic strategist Eddie Vale, who used to work at the AFL-CIO federation of unions, said that the latest announcements from Biden are “good projects” for appealing to both environmentalists and labor.
He praised how Biden has handled the issue throughout his presidency.
“He basically doesn’t make remarks talking about green jobs, solar power, green energy — anything — without talking about how making those jobs union is also what gives people the path to the middle class,” Vale said.
Fellow Democratic strategist Jon Reinish also said that Biden was doing a good job, but added that he should be doing even more.
Reinish said Biden and the Democrats should work to further emphasize “that there is a lot of money to be made” in the energy transition, including by doing “a lot of interviews on the subject.”
He spoke to The Hill before Biden announced he would join workers on the picket line. In a follow-up email after the announcement, Reinish said that going to Michigan was a “great move” but that the broader point that even more needs to be done still stands.
Vale noted that with the election still a year away, the president is likely to take further action on the issue.
“There’s a lot more things to come, there’s a lot more announcements, there’s a lot more policies, there’s a lot more campaigning,” he said, adding that Biden will likely continue to address climate and jobs policy together.
As climate change warms the planet and contributes to destruction, leaders around the world are looking to shift to energy sources that emit less carbon, or none at all.
The labor consequences of this are complicated — as some industries will see a decline while others will grow. But the skills required for the clean energy jobs are not always directly transferable, and the locations where workers are needed may differ.
“On net, ambitious climate policies will probably create more jobs than they destroy, but that’s cold comfort if you’re working in a coal-fired power plant or producing oil in West Texas,” said Daniel Raimi, director of the equity in the energy transition initiative at climate think tank Resources for the Future.
“Most clean energy workers are not going to be coming directly from the fossil fuel industry,” he added. “The geographies and the skills are not lined up very nicely to do that.”
Sanya Carley, an energy policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said that in the case of the auto industry, many workers will have similar skills, but she also noted that some plants are being moved into southern states that have lower labor costs, cheaper electricity and less union activity.
“We will see plants close as a result of less production of the internal combustion engine and more production of the electric vehicle,” Carley said.
She added that if a factory is local, many workers “could potentially move over into a battery plant because of the transferability of skils but … there’s this geographic mismatch that makes it a little difficult.”
Carley also said achieving a just transition to electric vehicles will include a balance of decarbonization, worker pay and keeping prices low.
“This energy transition, if it is to be done in a just and equitable way raises a whole bunch of really complicated trade-offs,” she said.