How will electrification of vehicles impact auto workers?

Threats to traditional auto manufacturers are outlined in “The top trends killing the auto industry” in Corporate Knights (Feb. 3), including the climate crisis, the fall of fossil fuels, electrification and autonomous EV fleets, unfunded pension liabilities (US$14.4 billion for G.M., US$10.2 billion for Ford), as well as  shifting government policies, and dampened demand in general. All the more reason to celebrate the good news about investment in EV production in Canada by GM, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler , as well as GM’s January 2021 announcement that it will  sell only zero emissions vehicles by 2035. In February, Ford announced its target to sell EV’s only in Europe.  But the good news is complicated, as described in  “Auto industry peers into an electric future and sees bumps ahead” (Washington Post, Feb. 6)  , and by  “Canada and the U.S. auto sector’s abrupt pivot to electric vehicles” (National Observer, Feb. 15) . For Canada, the challenges include competition for the development of battery technology and the policy challenge of the new “Made in America” Executive Order by President Biden on January 25.  Despite the brief and optimistic overview presented in  “Jerry on the Job: How the president of Canada’s largest union, Jerry Dias, is driving the country’s electric vehicle push” (Corporate Knights, Feb. 4), our highly integrated North American auto industry has a complicated path forward. 

One of the most important issues ahead is how the conversion to electric vehicles will impact the jobs of current auto workers. In late 2020, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering conducted a detailed study of this issue on behalf of the Sustainability Council of the Volkswagen Group.  Employment 2030 Effects Of Electric Mobility And Digitalisation on the Quality and Quantity of Employment at Volkswagen (Nov. 2020) is an English-language summary of the full, detailed study, which modelled the impacts of digitization and electrification in the industry. Although the study is specific to  VW production in Germany, its findings are instructive, and include that job losses will be less than anticipated, ( a decrease of 12 percent in this decade, mainly due to planned output volumes and higher productivity).  Digitization will result in a need for new skills, “will necessitate a profound change in corporate culture”, and will include higher employee expectations for job flexibility. A summary appearing in Clean Energy Wire   states: “ …. there is no uniform employment trend in the ‘transformation corridor’ over the coming decade. Instead, there will be a complex, interconnected mixture of job creation, job upgrading and job cuts. It argues that it will be vital to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) do not fall victim to this reorganisation, and warns that Germany’s automotive sector must establish new forms of cooperation so as not to “recklessly surrender the field of mobility to new market players.”  The study is also summarized in a press release by  VW (with links to the full study in German).

Roadmap for U.S. Decarbonization emphasizes job creation, equity in Transition

A Committee of Experts in the United States collaborated to produce a sweeping policy blueprint for how the U.S. can reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.  Accelerating Decarbonization of the United States Energy System was published by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in February 2021, and discusses how to decarbonize the transportation, electricity, buildings, and industrial sectors.  The Overview emphasizes goals of job creation and equity, with a need to build social license.  This aspect of the report is drawn out in “We risk a yellow vest movement”: Why the US clean energy transition must be equitable”  a summary which appeared in Vox.

From the report overview

“The transition represents an opportunity to build a more competitive U.S. economy, increase the availability of high-quality jobs, build an energy system without the social injustices that permeate our current system, and allow those individuals, communities, and businesses that are marginalized today to share equitably in future benefits. Maintaining public support through a three decade transition to net zero simply cannot be achieved without the development and maintenance of a strong social contract. This is true for all policy proposals described here, including a carbon tax, clean energy standards, and the push to electrify and increase efficiencies in end uses such as vehicle and building energy use. “

The report recommendations are summarized in this  Policy Table, and in a 4-page Highlights document.  These include:   Setting an emissions budget for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases • Setting an economy-wide price on carbon (though a low price is set “because of concerns about equity, fairness, and competitiveness”) • Establish a 2-year federal National Transition Task Force “to evaluate the long-term implications of the transition for communities, workers, and families,  and identify strategies for ensuring a just transition”.• Establish a new Office of Equitable Energy Transitions within the White House to act on the recommendations of the task force, establish just transition targets and  track progress • A  new independent National Transition Corporation. • A new Green Bank, initially capitalized at $30 billion, to ensure the required capital is available for the net-zero transition and to mobilize greater private investment • A comprehensive education and training initiative “to develop the workforce required for the net-zero transition, to fuel future innovation, and to provide new high-quality jobs” • Triple federal investment in clean energy RD&D at the Department of Energy over the next ten years,  as well as the support for social science research on the socio-economic aspects of advancing the transition.

The full report, 210 pages, is available free for download from this link  (registration required).

Benchmarking corporate Just Transition policies gives auto manufacturers like Tesla a low score

The World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) announced in February that will combine its existing Corporate Human Rights Benchmarking  with its Climate and Energy Benchmarking of global corporations, to produce a Just Transition Benchmark Assessment .  The WBA has a practical objective:

“Trade unions and civil society organisations can use the transparency provided by these assessments to hold companies accountable, and governments can use them as evidence to inform policy making for a just transition. Additionally, investors and the companies themselves will be able to use the assessments as a roadmap to move towards practices to ensure no one is left behind in the decarbonisation and energy transformation.”

Assessing a just transition: measuring the decarbonisation and energy transformation that leaves no one behind  outlines the methodology of this new assessment exercise and invites stakeholders to contribute in an ongoing process till 2023. The proposed outcome is to publish Just Transition Benchmark assessments of approximately 450 companies in high-emitting sectors – in publicly available rankings,  as are the many other reports of the World Benchmarking Alliance. Assessing a just transition also includes results from a pilot project of the automotive sector to illustrate how the Just Transition assessments will be done. It synthesizes the findings from the WBA Automotive Benchmarking for 2020  with its Corporate Human Rights Benchmarking .

Global auto manufacturers are racing to produce electric vehicles, but are they respecting workers’ rights?

In combining the findings of the two existing benchmarking initiatives, Assessing a just transition states: “…. Some companies that demonstrated action on climate issues, such as low-carbon transition plans, emissions reduction targets and climate change oversight, disclosed very little, if any, information on how they manage human rights, and vice versa. This lack of correlation suggests that many automotive manufacturers still consider climate and human rights issues separately, to be addressed independently of each other, despite the fact that they are increasingly recognised as interconnected.”

A brief case study highlight of Tesla states:  “….. when observing the company’s approach to managing human rights, Tesla scores in the bottom third of companies assessed in the CHRB with an overall score of 6.3/100. This approach has come under recent scrutiny, with a 2020 shareholder resolution demanding Tesla improve its disclosures on human rights governance, due diligence and remedy. While the resolution did not pass (24.8% voted in favour), it highlights that even when a company contributes to decarbonisation, a lack of essential human rights policies and processes to prevent abuse of communities and workers cannot be overlooked.”

Related reports:

The WBA  Corporate Human Rights Benchmarking Report for 2020 Key Findings  includes five sectors: Agricultural products, Apparel, Extractives & ICT manufacturing – and for the first time ever, 30 companies in the Automotive manufacturing sector.   The report states: “The average score for automotive companies is 12%, the lowest score ever for a CHRB-benchmarked sector. Two thirds of the companies scored 0 across all human rights due diligence indicators. These poor results suggest implementation of the UNGPs is weak across the sector.”

Twenty-five “keystone” companies in the automotive industry have been benchmarked for their progress towards Paris goals since 2019. Results of the 2020 report are here , and a blog in December 2020 summarizes the results in  “A tale of two automotive companies: sluggish incumbents and opaque disruptors in the race to zero-emissions vehicles”.

 

Australian unions advocating for Just Transition, economic recovery, and decent jobs in renewables

As Australia endures more record-breaking heat in its current summer season, the Climate Council released a report in January:  Hitting Home: the Compounding Costs of Climate Inaction, which catalogues the natural disasters and their toll on the country.  New Climate Change legislation was introduced in November 2020 which would legislate a net zero emissions target by 2050 and establish a system of emissions budgeting.  A Parliamentary House committee has just concluded public hearings on the legislation, to which the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) submitted a brief:  No-one left behind: Australia’s transition to zero emissions . The ACTU chiefly calls for improved supports for workers in an energy transition, and the establishment of a national Just Transition or Energy Transition Authority . (The ACTU passed a more  detailed climate and energy transition policy statement in 2018  )

In November 2020, the ACTU also published Sharing the benefits with workers: A decent jobs agenda for the renewable energy industry, which provides an overview of the renewable energy sector in Australia, and features both best and worst workplace practices. The report proposes an agenda to improve the quality of jobs, with special attention to the small-scale solar industry. “Particular attention is paid to the current practice of outsourcing construction of renewable energy projects to labour hire contractors, which is where many of the poor employment practices occur, and to ensuring project developers are maximising local job creation through procurement, hiring and local content planning.”  

In August, the Victoria Trades Hall Council, released Transition from Crisis: Victoria Trades Hall Council’s Just Transition & Economic Recovery Strategy  which links climate change and Covid-19 in words that could apply in any country:

“….The scale of the fiscal response to COVID-19 shows that, when a government takes a problem seriously and commits to dealing with it, the finances to get the problem fixed can be found and the spending is supported by the general population. The implications for action on climate change are obvious. …..The trauma, disruption and dislocation caused by COVID-19 are unprecedented outside of war time. The response, with its restrictions of civil liberties and suppression of economic activity, has been necessary, proportionate to the threat, and largely accepted by the population. The deep irony is that acting proportionately to deal with climate change would require none of those infringements of liberties and would produce an economic transformation that would leave Victorians better off. Hence this strategy is not simply for a just transition but for an economic recovery and the reconstruction of Victoria. In the period of recovery, after COVID-19 has been brought under control, we must learn the lessons from the virus response, continue to mobilise the resources we need, build on the incredible growth in community spirit and mutual aid, and get to work to deal with climate change with a determination that is based on hope and necessary action for a better world. “

The Transition from Crisis report has many purposes, but ultimately it is a comprehensive discussion of policy ideas to help the transition to a socially just and sustainable society, with workers at the centre.  The strategy is built on eleven principles, which include inclusion of First Nations, gender equality, social equity, and new energy ownership models, among others.  The report discusses the many ways in which unions can advocate for climate change action and protect their members: through participation in tri-partite industrial planning,  training and retraining, occupational health and safety protection, collective bargaining, and union networking and cooperation. Regarding union cooperation for example,  the VTHC pledges “to participate in, or establish if needed, national and state level just transitions committees to formulate policies around just transition, provide support to individual unions, engage with state climate and environment organisations, and provide a conduit into national-level decision making.”

Canadian steel, concrete, aluminum and wood – low carbon solutions for public infrastructure

In a February 1 press release, Ken Neumann, National Director for Canada of the United Steelworkers says,  “We need our governments to support the creation and retention of good jobs by strengthening Canadian industrial and manufacturing capacities in ways that support the low-carbon transition of the economy”. To support that point, Blue Green Canada has released a new report, Buy Clean: How Public Construction Dollars can create jobs and cut pollution . Buy Clean calls for the use of Canadian-made building products in infrastructure in order to reap the dual benefit of reducing carbon emissions and supporting local industry and jobs.  The USW press release continues: “Buy Clean makes sense for Canada because it leverages our carbon advantage. Whether its steel, aluminum, cement or wood, building materials sourced from within Canada are typically lower carbon than imported materials” – thanks largely to our low-emissions energy supply and reduced transportation  costs. The report recommends that all levels of government continue and expand the use of Buy Clean policies for procurement. The report also calls for an Industrial Decarbonization Strategy to encourage technological innovation in the manufacture of steel, aluminum, concrete and wood , and for a “Clean Infrastructure Challenge Fund” , to act as a demonstration fund modelled on the Low Carbon Economy Challenge, but available only for public infrastructure projects, not to private industry.  

Buy Clean: How Public Construction Dollars can create jobs and cut pollution is also available in a French-language version,  Acheter Propre: Créer des emplois et réduire la pollution par une utilisation judicieuse des fonds publics en construction . The report includes appendices for each of the sectors, providing brief but specific summaries of how Canadian industry has already achieved lower carbon  processes than their competitors – particularly in steel and aluminum, and what further decarbonization opportunities remain.

The Buy Clean message seems closely related to the Stand Up for Steel national campaign by the United Steelworkers, which also calls for the use of Canadian-made steel in infrastructure projects. After the disruptive tariffs levied by the previous U.S. administration, the Stand up for Steel Action Plan also calls for the right for unions to initiate trade cases; for expanding the definition of ‘material injury’ in trade cases; and for a carbon border adjustment on imported steel.