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Industrial Policy Without Industrial Unions

Democrats’ new industrial manufacturing plan leaves unions behind, fumbling a moment of relative leverage for organized labor.

Illustration by Robert Meganck

This article appears in the October 2022 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.


In August, as President Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act, pledging to build American semiconductor factories, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker posed on the White House lawn, flanked by the chief executives of vehicle companies Ford, Lion Electric, and Rivian. Thanks to billions of dollars in federal and state investments, Pritzker said, his constituents could expect a manufacturing revival, and “good-paying, union jobs.”

Illinois is refashioning itself as a center for electric vehicle (EV) production and a cluster of related industries, such as microchips. The state just passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, its flagship industrial-policy plan, and has passed MICRO, a complement to federal CHIPS subsidies. Pritzker is hungry for Chicago to host the upcoming Democratic convention and take a victory lap at factory openings.


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But he may have to trot out non-union autoworkers at the ribbon cuttings.

Ford, a “Big Three” union automaker, boasts that the F-150 is a “legendary union-built vehicle,” but battery production is being outsourced to non-union shops. Bus producer Lion Electric is under pressure to use organized labor, but has yet to make public commitments on allowing a union election without interference. Electric-truck startup Rivian, which is 18 percent owned by Amazon, has been plagued by workplace injuries and labor violations. Illinois’s attorney general recently uncovered a scheme to renovate its downstate plant with workers brought in from Mexico, who were cheated out of overtime pay.

More from Lee Harris

Democrats are giddy about the arrival of green industrial policy. With last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, CHIPS, and the new Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Congress has poured money into setting off green growth. The main messaging behind this policy is that government investment can create attractive jobs, and a new political base, by manufacturing the clean technologies of the future.

If you squint, you could almost mistake the IRA’s robust Buy American provisions for worker protections. They are often mentioned in the same sentence. But while new spending is likely to onshore manufacturing, it largely lacks provisions ensuring that those new jobs will adhere to high-road labor standards, let alone that they will be unionized.

Instead, the political logic of the bill is a gamble. The energy sector is still dominated by oil and gas. To accelerate the transition, it will be necessary to create large countervailing industries. After decades of offshoring, the first aim for green manufacturing is to make sure that it happens here at all. The IRA alone could produce as many as nine million jobs over the next decade, according to an analysis by University of Massachusetts Amherst and the labor-environmental coalition BlueGreen Alliance. Many of those jobs will be in old Democratic strongholds where the party is now hemorrhaging support, like mining in Nevada and auto production in the Midwest.

Supporters hope that once new green jobs are created, a mass labor coalition could follow. As Nathan Iyer, an analyst at the climate consultant RMI, told the Prospect in a recent podcast, “It’s hard to have a workers-based movement, and build workers’ power, if there are no workers.”

Democrats selling green industrial policy are not following through on the promise to make green jobs good jobs.

But if low-quality jobs are created first, it could prove hard to level up later. Decarbonization is an early-stage industry, and standards set now are likely to be locked in. Early signs are worrying. The Big Three automakers are using the transition to electric cars as an opportunity to bring on an underclass of nominally unionized but lower-tier workers, or to skip unions at new factories altogether.

As states and the federal government make an unprecedented wealth transfer to the next generation of clean-energy companies, Democrats selling green industrial policy are not following through on the promise to make green jobs good union jobs. They may only have a short window to get it right.

AS A 23-YEAR-OLD UNION PAINTER IN 1986, David Bentley helped stand up Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing in Normal, Illinois. To prevent export restrictions, the Japanese automaker had agreed to open plants in the Midwest, in exchange for the freedom to sell more of its small, fuel-efficient cars in the American market.

“Mitsubishi made me,” Bentley told the Prospect. After painting the original steel structure, he worked on several plant expansions. He also started his own company, Commercial and Industrial Coatings, which grew to become one of Mitsubishi’s top contractors. But annual vehicle production shrank from more than 200,000 in 2002 to just 64,000 in 2014, and Mitsubishi eventually left the U.S. to focus on the growing Asian market.

Bentley was overjoyed when Rivian announced in 2017 that it would buy the old campus. Given his extensive knowledge of the site, he expected to be tapped for renovations. The following winter, ahead of a visit by CEO R.J. Scaringe, Bentley heard that Rivian leadership wanted to remove the faint “MITSUBISHI” lettering on the side of the building, and replace it with a “RIVIAN” sign visible from the nearby interstate highway. With his crew, Bentley said, he worked in the cold and ice to remove the old lettering, anticipating bigger rehabbing projects down the line. “I did it for next to free, just to get in with them.”

But those bigger jobs never came. Bentley offered extensive site consultation, producing samples and mock-ups, and bid on a project to polish two million square feet of concrete, but his local team was not chosen. Instead, he learned, Rivian was turning to outside contractors. In 2019, he closed Commercial and Industrial Coatings, which at its height had employed more than two dozen union workers.

It wasn’t just Bentley. Other local workers have struggled to get hired by Rivian, despite generous public subsidies luring the company to Normal. “We had conversations with the top brass. They did not want us in that plant,” said Mandy Ganieany, organizing director for Painters District Council No. 30 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), based in Aurora.

The city of Normal gave Rivian approximately $3 million in tax breaks between 2017 and 2022, according to a project development agreement, without requiring residents to be hired locally. (It does require that salaries not fall beneath average local wages.) Illinois has promised $49.5 million in state tax credits if Rivian creates 1,000 jobs over a decade.

“They rolled out the red carpet for this company,” Ganieany said. Yet elected officials were unhelpful as unions pushed for hiring local workers, she said.

Not all the work has been outsourced. Local contractor P.J. Hoerr, for example, won a remodeling deal. But Ronnie Paul of the local laborers union said that Rivian has run into labor issues, particularly “when they start[ed] hiring these out-of-state, out-of-country contractors to come in here, who aren’t familiar with Illinois law.”


Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D-IL) has not yet endorsed a union organizing effort at electric-truck startup Rivian. David Proeber/The Pantagraph via AP

For example, Painters USA, a firm domiciled in Chicago and Dallas, brought in workers from South Texas during the $1.2 billion renovation of Rivian’s plant, according to one person familiar with the company’s practices. One worker shot himself in the hand with a paint gun, the person said, leading to an OSHA investigation. Rivian has been the subject of numerous OSHA complaints, including a 2020 violation involving a “falling object protection” in which it was charged a penalty of $5,969. (Painters USA did not respond to requests for comment.)

To build assembly lines at the plant, an investigation by Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul found, companies hired by Rivian “used an elaborate subcontracting arrangement to deny overtime pay to Mexican laborers.” Rivian initially hired MINO Equipment, a China-based subcontractor used by several American EV companies, including Tesla. MINO contracted the work to firms based in Florida and Spain. Those companies further subcontracted out to Mexico-based SDS and LAM Automation, which hired workers from Mexico for the construction jobs in Illinois.

At least 113 Mexican workers were denied overtime, the investigation learned, as they routinely worked between 60 and 80 hours per week. Raoul recovered back wages and civil penalties totaling more than $700,000.

Raoul only learned of the labor violations due to a tip from the local electricians union, he told the Prospect. Precisely for that reason, he believes workers at clean-energy plants should be unionized. “The contractors probably didn’t seek out Illinois workers for the scheme, likely because they knew Illinois workers would be more apprised of the laws that protected them,” Raoul said. “It was but for a tip from organized labor, in the interest of protecting workers, that we unraveled this.”

Ironically, local politicians don’t share his perspective. Chris Koos, the Democratic mayor of Normal, argued that bringing in out-of-state and even foreign workers is a net positive. “If people are willing to travel here to work, it’s good-paying jobs,” Koos told the Prospect. “If they’re in another state, or downstate, or Chicagoland, and they’ve got people idle, it’s good.”

Asked about the state investigation into wage theft, the mayor denied knowing about it. When pressed, Koos said, “That was a subcontractor, it wasn’t Rivian.” He added, “I know that things out at that plant are going 100 miles an hour.”

IN HIS CAMPAIGN, BIDEN PROPOSED to make union neutrality, where companies agree to not contest a union vote, a condition for employers to receive federal funding. He also vowed to pass fines for employers who violate labor laws when firing employees. Neither of those provisions appears in the IRA.

Biden also wanted consumer rebates to go specifically to union-built cars, which would have added $4,500 onto the $7,500 federal tax credit extended by the bill. This was personally axed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who called the proposal “not American” at an event at Toyota’s non-union West Virginia components plant.

Union neutrality provisions were also stripped out of CHIPS and the bipartisan infrastructure law (BIL). In each case, there were hurdles to including pro-union language: IRA was a reconciliation bill, restricted to spending, making it tough to include standards, and the bipartisan bills faced Republican political opposition to labor provisions. That means agencies allocating the funding will play a crucial role in whether federal dollars support union work.

Over the past several months, the Department of Energy has released funding opportunity announcements on grants created by the bipartisan infrastructure law. A Prospect review of available applications found that they do not include requirements related to employer neutrality or right to bargain, and most do not mention workforce protections. (An application for recycling EV batteries does contain strong pro-union language, including inviting applicants to include letters of commitment from unions, though it does not specify whether that will be weighted in selection.)

When touting the pro-union bona fides of the IRA, Democrats mostly point to one win: prevailing-wage laws and apprenticeship programs. That’s an important victory for some workers, though it applies narrowly to jobs in the construction sector.

Agencies allocating the funding for Biden’s public investment bills will play a crucial role in whether federal dollars support union work.

Prevailing-wage requirements discourage cutthroat bidding by contractors. Under the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, federal contractors must pay prevailing wages for construction work, matching the hourly rate of similarly employed workers in a region. The bill prevents tradesmen from being undercut by out-of-town builders, who are often exploited, like the Mexican workers brought in by Rivian subcontractors.

Typically, Davis-Bacon has only applied to federal contractors, such as building crews for the Department of Transportation. The IRA extends it to ordinary employers. Businesses seeking tax credits for installing electric-vehicle charging infrastructure, or making buildings more energy-efficient, will receive five times the credit if they meet prevailing-wage requirements and hire registered apprentices.

Mike Monroe of NABTU, the building trades division of the AFL-CIO, called this potentially transformational. “We’re all competing now on a level playing field,” he told the Prospect. “We think that that will lead to increased unionization, in conjunction with other public policies this administration has helped push out.”

But even prevailing-wage bonuses, IRA’s biggest direct achievement for labor, don’t apply to all manufacturing incentives. For example, a new “Section 45X” tax credit for solar, wind, and battery parts production is not subject to requirements for prevailing wages or apprenticeship.

Industrial trades, meanwhile, said that the priority on builders above other workers in federal legislation is echoed at the local level. United Auto Workers (UAW) Vice President Cindy Estrada told the Prospect that Gov. Pritzker hasn’t done enough to push for union labor at auto plants in Illinois. “He’s doing a lot of good work with the building trades, making sure that plants are built union,” she said. “But we also want to make sure, once those four walls are up, that they’re union.”

INSIDE THE RIVIAN PLANT IN NORMAL, a union drive has taken off. Mitsubishi workers at the factory were part of UAW, and workers are now betting it can be organized again. Current Rivian employees told the Prospect that the plant is run in a disorderly manner that reduces their formal protections, making their schedules unpredictable and their jobs less safe.

Assembly line workers are sent home when the plant runs out of parts. During those production pauses, several Rivian employees said, workers are asked to use their paid time off, eating up much of a policy that is officially meant to be used for sick leave or emergencies.

Unfair leave policies were a top concern for Anakin Fox, until recently a Rivian worker in production control who brought parts to the line for the company’s Amazon Prime vans. Fox left his job at the plant in August, after deciding that it was too tough on his health.

“There is a huge lack of safety in Rivian,” said another worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The worker explained that employees are expected to adapt to last-minute changes, which the company excuses as the growing pains of a startup. “It’s basically like a blind-faith test that your managers are going to be managing you right.”

Scheduling and staffing issues also trouble Janet Schaar, a material handler at Rivian, who told the Prospect that managers have been unhelpful when she has raised concerns. Schaar arrives at 6:30 a.m. and is given half an hour for lunch at 10:45 a.m. After that, she has three ten-minute breaks until her day ends at 7:10 p.m., when she takes a shuttle bus to the parking lot before driving home, when it is often too late to make dinner.

At 50, Schaar is looking for a job that can be a career. If she stays in this position, her raises will max out in three years at $23 an hour. Depending on the shift and overtime, she said, some workers at the local Wendy’s make more.

“But we’re in auto manufacturing,” Schaar said. “There is a skill set to building these vehicles, and we should get the pay to match that.” Those frustrations, and particularly a desire for greater control over unpredictable scheduling and time-off policies, got Schaar interested in organizing with UAW.

It is something of an existential moment for UAW, which has not managed to organize a single EV producer. The union has weathered several high-profile failures at foreign and non-union plants, compounded with a spate of internal corruption scandals.

“Workers in auto understand their power and the moment they’re in,” Estrada told the Prospect. The union says it is adopting more radical tactics and emphasizing grassroots organizing. They might even be willing to strike for recognition, Estrada said, an escalation that birthed the modern union autoworker movement, after the famed sit-down strikes of the 1930s. That would be a departure from UAW’s more recent efforts to work through the National Labor Relations Board process, which, she said, is “rigged against workers.”

“What you never can skip is just good organizing,” Estrada added. “We’re working with those workers to build strong, public, worker-based committees.”

Not all workers see that happening on the ground, however. While working at Rivian, Fox saw the organizing committee grow from a few dozen people to hundreds. Yet even as excitement grew, UAW emphasized process and organizing infrastructure, rather than actions, Fox said. “The campaign was being guided by staff, not owned by the workers.”

Too much external emphasis on process can be a mistake, according to some labor experts. “Success comes from grassroots organizing,” said Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University. “Not just some big muckety-muck coming in from out of town.”

When actions have happened, Fox said, UAW organizers have sometimes learned about them after the fact. Earlier this year, workers in the body shop had been asked to work on a Saturday, and were told last-minute that they had to work more overtime. Workers organized an informal line strike, raising broader concerns about their paid-time-off policy. They were successful, immediately winning concessions from management.

“That was all the workers. People were fed up, and said, ‘OK, we basically have 100 percent pro [support for walking off] in our area, we’re just going to do something about it,” Fox said. Afterward, UAW was pleased with the outcome, he added. “It’s interesting that when they take a step back, it works, but in the actual infrastructure of our organizing committee, when they’re very involved, it was a little harder for us to get good work done.”

On the pace of the campaign, Schaar said, “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

The race at Rivian has not been helped by politicians reluctant to go to bat for labor. Asked about a union drive, Koos, the mayor of Normal who helped attract Rivian, told the Prospect, “I haven’t heard a word.”

In the South, the right-wing political establishment has been instrumental—and resourceful—in defeating union efforts. In 2014, the first time UAW tried to organize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, former Gov. Bill Haslam threatened to withhold $300 million in tax incentives for a proposed expansion at the plant if the union drive succeeded. The second time, in 2019, Gov. Bill Lee visited the plant to discourage unionizing.

Yet Democratic politicians have been hesitant to act as a counterweight to promote union organizing, partly out of fear that factories will go to the South. Asked whether Pritzker supports the unionizing effort under way at Rivian, a spokesperson said, “The Governor believes that organized labor has always been the backbone of our state.”

Rivian trucks are made in Normal, Illinois, in a plant that used to be a union shop owned by Mitsubishi. Mark Reinstein/Mediapunch/IPX

ORGANIZING ANY NON-UNION COMPANY is an uphill battle. But Rivian is a particularly grueling fight because most automaking, including the emerging EV sector, has been functionally non-union for many years. The first pulse of investments into electric cars coincided with the financial crisis, when nearly all auto jobs were being restructured.

Tesla, bolstered by Obama-era Department of Energy loans, is the only non-union, U.S.-based automaker. CEO Elon Musk is particularly vocal in his anti-worker animus, and has received little more than a slap on the wrist. After the NLRB ordered Tesla to remove an anti-union tweet, it remains up. A factory ban on wearing union T-shirts was illegal, the NLRB ruled; the penalty was to put a sign up in the break room that union shirts are allowed.

Tesla stands to benefit from the new tax credits—as do non-union foreign automakers as they pivot assembly to North America. Tesla had earned out of the EV consumer tax rebates after hitting a quota of 200,000 sales. But those limits were lifted in the IRA, without adding any pro-labor requirements.

During the Great Recession, legacy auto companies in receivership took huge concessions for new workers. General Motors’ lower-tier job system, known as Subsystems, is a cost-cutting invention in which the company hires workers under the rubric of “GM Subsystem Manufacturing LLC,” a wholly owned subsidiary of GM. This workaround, invented to pay reduced wages to some GM workers, was born in 2009 at GM’s Brownstown, Michigan, facility, the first lithium-ion battery plant at a major automaker.

Employees at the Brownstown plant pay dues to UAW, but they are not covered by the national contract. A $105.9 million grant from the Department of Energy helped Brownstown open its doors. The idea was to rebuild union ranks, while remaining competitive with foreign producers. But rather than a temporary mechanism, the use of a subsidiary with lower-tiered pay has spread as more battery plants have opened.

In America’s shop-by-shop unionism, any new technology introduced—even a slight tweak or innovation—offers an opportunity for the corporation to say that the production doesn’t fall under the auspices of the old union contract. The same is true, for example, in Hollywood. As reality shows became more popular, networks and production companies claimed that “unscripted” TV fell outside old union contracts.

UAW President Ray Curry has fought this tendency, arguing that “our members should be compensated at the appropriate level” for manufacturing battery packs, at the same scale as engine and transmission parts. But that will require new bargaining. Plus, it takes up time that could be spent organizing new plants and battling the slow creep of the tiered wage system.

Organizing efforts have often been lackluster. The Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) reform caucus of the union proposed a resolution for worker-led organizing at EV, battery, and foreign-owned plants. But it never made the floor at August’s UAW convention in Detroit. Among the reformers’ demands: hire 100 full-time organizers. A member told the Prospect that UAWD has been unable to find out from UAW how many organizers are currently employed by the union.

Meanwhile, even after the recovery, Subsystems jobs have continued to spread. Estrada sent a letter to union members in 2018 explaining an agreement with GM for “outsourcing” at plants in Lordstown, Ohio, and Lake Orion, Michigan. The jobs went to Subsystems employees, though the letter doesn’t name Subsystems. In 2019, GM closed the Lordstown plant, despite an array of inducements to remain.

THE DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY IS NOW making fresh loans to non-union plants. Lordstown is one of three sites where Ultium Cells, a joint venture between GM and Korean electronics manufacturer LG Chem, is building a new battery plant. Jobs at joint venture plants are expected to pay less than top wages.

The DOE’s Loan Programs Office announced a $2.5 billion loan to Ultium through its Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program, which received an additional $40 billion in funding in the IRA. The government cannot make loans contingent on unionization. But it can use soft power, and prioritize labor standards in criteria for loans.

Ultium originally said it would leave the question of unionizing up to the workforce in Ohio and Tennessee. But UAW leadership did not draw up a formal neutrality agreement, and the company reversed course. In May, UAW Vice President Terry Dittes told local leaders that their card-check agreement proposal had been “flat-out rejected.”

The Ultium loan is not just bad labor policy—it may be bad lending. The legal premise of project labor agreements for construction is that labor disputes are a risk. The Obama administration argued in 2009 that this could serve as a foothold for union neutrality in procurement, since the government “has a proprietary interest in ensuring that those contracts will be performed by contractors whose work will not be interrupted by labor unrest.”

Stephen Lerner, a labor and community organizer who is currently a fellow at Georgetown University, made a similar argument. “Why would the government give a $2.5 billion loan to Ultium, when it has not agreed to a process for workers to unionize?” he asked. “That’s a risky loan, if they’re headed toward a labor dispute.” Shortly after that interview, in early September, Lords-town employees struck for representation.

Using procurement contracts as leverage helps explain why unions have made inroads into bus manufacturers.

But as new government funding pumps out to the auto sector, UAW has continued making concessions. At another DOE-funded Ultium joint venture in Spring Hill, Tennessee, UAW regional leaders and Local 1853 signed a memo of understanding with GM in June 2020 for hundreds of jobs to be performed by Subsystems employees, The Detroit News reported. After workers learned of the secret agreement, local leadership resigned.

Asked about signing over jobs to Subsystems workers, Mike Lewis, vice president of Local 1853, told the Prospect, “I don’t like the fact that they would be lower-tier jobs. I think everyone should be on the same playing field, get the same money.” But pressed on the agreement, he said, “That’s actually something for the national party to decide. Not really on the local level.”

The upshot is that even union jobs in the emerging EV sector won’t necessarily be good jobs, said Jonah Furman, an organizer and writer for the publication Labor Notes. “As you let GM go to lower-tier jobs, you don’t lose the union jobs, but you turn them into something like meatpacking.”

UAW leadership says it is ready to meet the moment ahead of next year’s Big Three contract negotiations. It is attempting to stand up a National Auto Worker Committee comprised of representatives from non-union automakers. A May meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, drew more than 60 autoworkers from Tesla, Rivian, Honda, Volkswagen, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, and others.

“We need a sectoral rate in this country,” Estrada said. “During the auto crisis we put unions, labor, management, and the administration in the same room to figure out how to save these companies. And the solution was, they need to go down to Toyota’s non-union rate. The problem with us all going to Toyota’s rate to be competitive is, they have no union.”

In interviews, several UAW workers described their exasperation with leadership calling for sectoral bargaining. It comes too late, they said, with the union bargaining from a position of weakness. Plus, switching to a more European model would require political mobilization that is unlikely, because unions are now fighting over the scraps of what they previously organized.

“You can’t have a sectoral approach unless you’re organized sectorally,” said Scott Houldieson, an electrician at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant. “We couldn’t even get the PRO Act or something like card check passed when we had a supermajority in the early years of the Obama administration. So it’s baffling to think that leadership relies on government to help them. We need to do the hard work ourselves.”

LABOR PROVISIONS THAT COULDN’T PASS in Biden’s legislative agenda might make it through in a mix of oversight measures, regulatory reforms, and creative uses of executive power.

Public procurement, which creates some $2 trillion a year of economic activity, or almost 10 percent of U.S. GDP, is a huge leverage point. States and school districts purchase bus fleets, and every contract is an opportunity to examine the supply chain, including by stakeholders outside government. Teachers unions have organized for school bus fleets to be built with union labor.

Using procurement contracts as leverage helps explain why unions have made inroads into bus manufacturers. The United Steelworkers organized Proterra; Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) Union organized BYD; and the Communications Workers of America has formed a union with workers at New Flyer. Coalitions like Jobs to Move America are focused on winning community benefit agreements in places like Illinois, where labor and environmental groups are calling on Lion Electric to allow employees to decide on union representation.

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An electric-vehicle battery from Ultium Cells, a joint venture between GM and Korean electronics manufacturer LG Chem. Ted Shaffrey/AP Photo

Meanwhile, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has quietly undertaken the biggest reform to prevailing-wage law since Ronald Reagan gutted construction worker pay in 1983. Reagan’s Labor Department enacted a number of debilitating modifications, including eliminating a rule that said a given wage was the “prevailing” rate if more than 30 percent of workers in an area were paid that amount—typically the union rate. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found that wage rate surveys were so out-of-date that in some areas, Davis-Bacon wage rates were below federal minimum wage.

DOL’s proposed rule would restore the 30 percent rule, which stands to benefit workers in states hostile to unions. Requiring higher labor standards is also likely to protect undocumented workers frequently employed as cheaper labor at construction sites. The new rule also ramps up enforcement, which will be crucial as prevailing-wage requirements are extended beyond federal contractors in the IRA. Obama’s 2009 infrastructure spending bill also included Davis-Bacon requirements, but DOL’s Wage and Hour Division struggled to enforce compliance.

Other regulatory battles loom. Unions are concerned that workers in new sectors will be misclassified as lower-skilled workers, so that contractors can avoid paying prevailing rates for crafts that require technical training. Clean-energy industry representatives have lobbied the Department of Labor to create job classifications for “installers,” which organized labor sees as an effort to carve away a new wage category that is not subject to union rates.

“Calling someone an ‘EV installer’ means you want somebody with minimal skills so you can pay them less,” Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), told the Prospect. Union Laborers work on many types of infrastructure projects, from wind and solar to bridges and water treatment plants, O’Sullivan said. “Nobody calls a worker a ‘bridge installer.’ It’s not a thing. Because skilled workers are needed across the industry.”

A WARLIKE SURGE IN SPENDING on the energy transition could propel economy-wide growth, lifting workers in sectors outside of new green industries. Economists like J.W. Mason of the Roosevelt Institute argue that as in World War II, when the biggest wage gains for workers were seen outside the “war industries,” bargaining power from green growth may show up in unexpected parts of the economy, like the retail and service sector. Given that, Mason argued, “it’s a bit myopic to focus just on the standards built into particular jobs.”

Others are wary of the analogy to a wartime boom. O’Sullivan, of the Laborers Union, pointed out that the energy production and investment tax credits in the IRA are available for at least the next ten years. “Whatever the urgency of the climate crisis, I don’t think we should compare it to a war mobilization. This is a steady and long-term investment,” he said. “A thousand things can change in 10 to 15 years when some sectors may slow, others may emerge.”

Even with unions depleted, the sheer scale of investment in the clean-energy sector suggests some new jobs will be unionized. Mine workers in West Virginia, for example, have secured a deal for laid-off coal miners to be hired by the battery manufacturer SPARKZ. The agreement came out of a White House meeting with union leaders and renewable-energy entrepreneurs, said Phil Smith, top lobbyist for the United Mine Workers. Smith said that the company has agreed to card-check neutrality.

Nevada, Arizona, and Texas, states with anti-union “right to work” laws, will receive many of the new jobs created by the domestic mining boom. Those battleground states represent another organizing opportunity. (The Steelworkers, not the UMWA, organize much of the hard-rock mining in the West.)

“On paper, organized labor did pretty good. It could have been better—we could have gotten provisions in the PRO Act in. But conceptually, we didn’t do too bad. What’s important now is making sure the follow-through is done properly,” Smith told the Prospect. “We’re back to basic organizing.”

Despite labor’s weakened position, several workers said that they are heartened by the surge of spending on American industry. Houldieson, the Ford electrician, said he is focused on next year’s contract negotiations, where he hopes to make new electric-car factories part of UAW’s master agreement.

“Where was the union movement in 1925? It was moribund,” he said. “We’ve been here before. What we’re talking about is not impossible.”

Lee Harris is a staff writer at The American Prospect. In 2020, she co-founded New York Focus, an investigative news site on New York politics. Prior to that, she was editor of the independent newspaper at the University of Chicago.

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