The auto industry is one of the most unionized parts of the U.S. economy — and United Auto Workers is striking in part to ensure it stays that way, even as the transition to electric vehicles threatens to shrink the workforce.

At midnight Thursday, thousands of workers walked out of three factories, all of which make gasoline-powered trucks or sport utility vehicles.

The UAW is demanding higher wages for nearly 150,000 members who work at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. Her campaign is part of a much broader fight: protecting workers through the transition to clean energy, which she estimates could cost 35,000 jobs.

That’s because the most successful new electric vehicle entrants, like Tesla and Rivian Automotive, don’t have unionized workforces.

The striking plants are far from the Lordstown, Ohio, factory run by a joint venture between General Motors and LG Energy Solutions that makes batteries for GM’s electric vehicles, whose workers are not covered by the same contracts.

The UAW criticized the wage and working conditions of the joint venture called Ultium Cells. Workers there earn less than UAW workers at Detroit automakers, despite winning raises worth $3 to $4 an hour last month.

“The battery factory jobs that will drive this transition must be as good or better than current jobs manufacturing internal combustion engine vehicles and components,” the UAW said in a report.

The union wants factories like Lordstown to be covered by the main contracts that govern the Detroit Three’s workforce; The car manufacturers are resisting this. Instead, workers at the plant had to vote to join the UAW, which was a more difficult process.

UAW President Shawn Fain has repeatedly said that the transition to electric vehicles, which currently account for about 8 percent of new car sales, must be “a just transition” that “does not leave workers behind.”

The U.S. auto industry employs nearly 1 million workers to produce vehicles and parts.

Although seen in the American imagination as the epitome of a “good job,” automotive jobs didn’t start out that way. According to the Library of Congress, the average autoworker in 1935 took home about $900 a month – just over half the amount needed to support a family of four.

The historic 1936-1937 sit-down strike in which workers seized control of several GM factories helped create an industry in which a job pays an average of $73,000, or $88,000 today if you consider just Automobile assembly plants taken into account. The UAW has used the strike as inspiration for its current labor dispute.

About 16 percent of the U.S. auto industry is unionized, compared to 10 percent of the U.S. workforce overall. The UAW’s membership peaked at 1.5 million in 1979, but its membership has thinned along with the rest of the U.S. labor movement. It now has around 400,000 members. As electric vehicles become mainstream, there is a risk that this will decline even further.

Building electric vehicles requires fewer workers than building internal combustion engine cars and trucks because electric vehicles have fewer parts. Ford CEO Jim Farley said last year that the industry would need 40 percent fewer workers to build electric vehicles.

Automakers have offered wage increases between 17.5 and 20 percent, while the UAW has asked for 36 percent over four years. The carmakers also want to stick to a two-tier wage system in which new workers need four years to receive the same salary as long-time employees, which the union rejects.

It’s not just auto workers who are threatened by companies’ plans to use new technologies to divert production away from unionized workers. The use of generative AI in filmmaking is a sticking point for Hollywood screenwriters and actors in their months-long strike against film studios.

Longshoremen at West Coast ports cited the proliferation of robots when renegotiating their contracts in June, while airline pilot unions pushed back against reducing flight crews from two to one as autopilot software evolves.

The 88-year-old UAW has gone through other technological changes, including when factories began automating production lines in the 1970s.

However, the shift to electric vehicles would be “far more disruptive” to existing jobs because it would eliminate many roles and significantly change or relocate others, said Ian Greer, director of research at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“The UAW’s concern is that autoworkers will pay for this transition,” he added.

“It is an open question whether the workers who are now producing combustion engines will be able to move into new jobs or whether they will have to experience periods of unemployment. These are all super important questions for a movement whose goal is to make sure people have good jobs.”

For unions outside the U.S., electrification does not pose the same threat. In Germany, where unions are represented on company boards, electric vehicle workers are members of the same union as their engine manufacturing counterparts.

Even Tesla, which shuns unions in California and Texas and even fired workers who tried to organize, has a union in Germany, although the company has clashed with its workers several times over conditions and demands.

But in the United States, the German carmaker Volkswagen has adopted the practices of U.S. carmakers and opened plants in anti-union southern states. When VW voted in 2019 on its Chattanooga plant in Tennessee, which produces both the VW Atlas SUV and the electric ID. 4, workers rejected the ballot.

Nissan workers at a plant in Mississippi voted against unionizing in 2017, while the Smyrna, Tennessee, plant that makes the electric Leaf voted against unionizing earlier this year.

“The current strike could undermine Michigan’s position in the industry as Detroit-based companies compete with the all-electric and union-free Tesla as well as foreign-owned plants located primarily in the Southern states,” a Moody’s report said.

Automakers are investing billions in new factories and tools to build electric vehicles. If the UAW meets its wage targets, the report said, it would “likely reduce the profitability of some legacy automakers’ projects specifically tied to industry transformation.”

But Sen. Bernie Sanders pointed out Friday at a UAW rally in Detroit that average wages for American auto workers have fallen over the past two decades, adjusted for inflation.

“There was once a time when a union job in the auto industry was the gold standard for working class America,” he said.

“Well, we are determined to bring those days back.”

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