News Brief: GOP, Corporate Media Attempt to Manufacture Conflict Between Autoworkers and Climate

Citations Needed | September 20, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
20 min readSep 20, 2023
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Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled episodes when there is some breaking news that we want to discuss. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook Citations Needed. To become a supporter of the show through All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100% listener funded.

But this News Brief, Adam, really came about because of the United Auto Workers Union strike, which is ongoing now. As a bit of background for our listeners, the United Auto Workers Union, the UAW represents about 146,000 people. And it recently began a strike a few days ago on Friday, September 15, 2023. About 12,700 workers have walked off the job to protest the so-called Big Three US automakers. Those are Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, which is the parent company of brands like Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep, among others. The UAW demands as a union relate to issues like the length of the work week, job security, wages, and benefits such as pensions. As the union president Shawn Fain has pointed out since their last contract negotiation in 2019, auto workers have received a 6% pay raise. Meanwhile, the salaries of the Big Three CEOs have gone up by 40%. Now, during the strike, media has been painting the work stoppage, the you know, workers walking off the job in protest, as a detriment to the burgeoning US electric vehicle industry. So, Adam, we wanted to really talk about how media is framing this up with that as background, but also the narratives that we’re seeing play out, especially as it concerns auto workers striking now as an enemy to say, you know, saving planet Earth.

Adam: Right. So there’s kind of when the strike began, polls show three quarters of Americans support the workers, the UAW workers. So there needed to be a narrative to create a wedge and to erode support for the Union. And so very quickly and even earlier in July and August, when they were leading up to a strike, there was a narrative that began to get printed, especially in corporate rags, like Politico and Axios, General Motors as a major sponsor of Axios. Especially, so they had multiple stories about how you know, they were kind of done in this handwringing, concern-troll formula, but like labor unrest, you know, exposes problems with EV, or whatever, implying or heavily implying, as the New York Times did and Sarah Lazare wrote this piece that we’re basing this News Brief on.

Nima: Friend of the show, Sarah. [Laughs]

Adam: “Friend of the show,” to make an understatement. She wrote a piece for In These Times as well as Workday magazine, where she is the editor in chief, documenting all the different media outlets and pundits saying that the reason why that the strike is going to undermine EU vehicles and implying heavily that the workers themselves don’t want to transition to electric vehicles, which is our guest will help us explain this just not true. And this is the kind of center-left version to erode popular support, but then there’s a right-wing version, which I wrote about yesterday, as I typically do, I just kind of drift off what Sarah had done spoiler alert, and I focused on the Josh Hawley, the JD Vance, the Tom Cotton, the Marco Rubios, the all the faux-populist front of the working man who either haven’t said anything or in the case of Josh Hawley, have taken this line and JD Vance have taken this line that green climate and Biden’s oppressive climate mandates are the giving the impression or explicitly saying that these climate mandates are a major grievance from the workers that the workers don’t want the climate mandates, which is again, not true at all, just a thing that exists entirely in Josh Hawley’s head.

And the reason why is of course they can’t and then their tweets and public statements. They never say they support the UAW because they can’t support a union. They actually don’t support unions, right. But they need to gesture towards this kind of faux populism. So they say, oh, you know, I want the workers to get a raise, you know, which is very vague and theoretically could mean 2% raise, ‘we support workers,’ which they would never translate into ‘we support unions.’ We don’t support the actual material political representation of workers. So the Union, we support them in some abstract hardhat branding sends each individual worker as a discrete unit as long as they don’t have to, like come in contact with them. And then they go on and JD Vance and Josh Hawley go on these diatribes about why workers don’t like these climate mandates, and it’s just a thing that exists in their head. Shawn Fain, the union representative, and every public statement the union has laid out, has made it clear this isn’t the case, which we’re going to talk to you about. So this is kind of a dual trope. It’s a trope for the far-right faux populists, and it’s a trope for this kind of center-left concern trolls trying to erode liberal support. And it’s central to both of these arguments that somehow there’s this inherent tension between labor and those who care about the earth not being unlivable in 50 years.

Nima: That’s right, hippies versus hardhats forever and ever and ever. So to help us dissect these media narratives and what we’re seeing play out, we are joined on this News Brief by Sydney Ghazarian, and organizer at the Labor Network for Sustainability. She joins us now. Sydney, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Sydney Ghazarian: I’m so honored to be here. Thanks so much for having me.

Adam: So let’s get to it. The narrative circulating, which we discussed, that the UAW strikes threaten the electric vehicle sector, because UAW were to unionize that industry and or raise labor standards and pay they would become unprofitable and die. And of course, the strikes don’t involve EV plants, but they certainly are on the minds of workers. So I want to sort of start by talking about this narrative, the narrative we talked about at the intro, this idea that workers think that big bad government is forcing them to be a bunch of green hippies.

Sydney Ghazarian

Sydney Ghazarian: Oh, my goodness, yes. I personally, I find that this narrative, this spin job, fascinating, primarily because of how I think it’s boldly dishonest, and it’s a glaring omission of the actual history and the dynamics at play. I don’t know how anyone can even talk about the slowdown of EV production without mentioning the fact that auto executives have been actively deliberately and unrelentingly squashing the EV rollout and any pro climate auto industry regulation for decades, all while suppressing global warming research since the 1960s. You know, the fact is that it wasn’t auto workers who made the decision to produce polluting vehicles or to build toxic plants in working class communities of color. You know, those decisions were made by auto industry bosses like Mary Barra, Jim Farley and Carlos Tavares, you know, the Big Three auto CEOs whose primary motive was ensuring that they could pocket millions and millions of dollars a year at any moral societal or planetary cost. And that’s exactly what they’re doing. And that’s what they’ve done for a long time. And what this industry narrative about UAW’s demands costing too much alongside the EV transition seems to neglect is the fact that auto companies are getting billions of dollars from taxpayer funded EV subsidies to make it work. It’s their responsibility to use public funding in ways that serve the public and planetary good, you know, and central to that is not leaving workers and communities behind in the transition to a green economy. And if they can’t figure out how to manage taxpayer money in ways that don’t further and misery taxpayers themselves, if their CEOs can’t bear to part ways with some of their 20 plus million dollar salaries. Why should we be trusting them with their money in the first place? Why is that money not going directly to workers and communities to figure it out for themselves?

I think earlier you had mentioned the sort of implicit pushback in the media, maybe it’s an explicit pushback in the media, probably explicit pushback in the media about unionized EV jobs costing too much. You know, to me, that’s honestly funny, for a lot of reasons, because this narrative seems to neglect the fact that the auto industry has been incredibly profitable with a unionized workforce for a very long time. The fact is that the auto industry was when it was in trouble in 2008, 2009. It was UAW it was their organized workforce that made tremendous and painful sacrifices to keep the companies afloat. Their unionized workers suffered, you know, like so many of us suffered during the financial crash, while the banks and billionaires were bailed out. And the Big Three are repaying this unbelievable and undeserved generosity by seemingly shocked Dr. Dang, under the cover of a clean energy transition to crush their unionized workforce, and they’re underpaid. non union workers build EVs and battery engines in unsafe conditions, you know, well, they pocket fat wads of government funding. I think the audacity of this dynamic and the idea that union jobs and clean energy transition are opposed. Being used to pit climate activists and auto workers against each other is so maddening and ignorant of what the climate movement is actually fighting for. Does no one remember the last several years because I remember, you know, I remember marching, I remember rallying, I remember fighting arm and arm with hundreds and thousands of climate activists for the Green New Deal’s promise of a rapid society-wide mobilization and just transition to decarbonize the economy while creating millions of high paying green union jobs. And we fought and are fighting for a Green New Deal, not a green gig economy and not the auto executives dystopian vision of the energy transition. And right now the climate movement is standing up to corporate greed. And you know, I think the climate movement is standing with UAW auto workers on strike.

Nima: Well, yeah, I mean, I think there’s something really fascinating going on, which is something you you actually just kind of mentioned, Sydney, which is this idea that there isn’t really In a war between hardhat workers and environmental activists, that that’s not actually a thing, but we’re supposed to believe it’s a thing, based on the talking points of, you know, whether it is the automakers themselves or the media covering the story, that somehow the narrative is supposed to be that if you support the transition to more electric vehicles, then clearly, you stand against the auto workers or vice versa, right? That if you stand with auto workers, well, then clearly you are not interested in the you know, Biden agenda of, you know, every two out of three cars that go to market need to be EV. And so what is always left out of this on purpose is not merely that the tension that is being reported on is not actually the real tension. It’s really just, you know, which is really about owners and workers. But what is so often left out and united to this already, is the idea that the Big Three automakers are themselves actually like the major climate villains here, right that like the all the hand wringing about oh, but you know, if the if the workers are on strike that we can’t make as many electric vehicles as we wish we could make because we care so deeply about the Earth, like they had been fighting this for years, if not decades, deliberately. Can you talk about like the environmental and climate track records of these automakers, whether it’s the Big Three or just the auto industry in general, and how they have deliberately pushed to like, slow the transition to EV but now we’re supposed to think that, you know, if only they had the workers to do it, they would do this, you know, wholeheartedly because they care so much.

Adam: Yeah. And let me add real quick a quote from CNBC reporter Phil LeBeau, who was kind of echoing industry CEOs he had talked to. He said, he told NBC News, Nightly News, quote, “These companies need those profits in order to fund the development of electric vehicles.” In reference to their record profits, he said, Oh, no, they actually they care about their their hearts bleed so much for mother nature, they’re actually they’re not paying themselves these massive billions of dollars in dividends, they need to give it to Mother Earth. So if you oppose massive record profits, you oppose investing in EVs is obviously the implication here that strikes me as a little dubious, a little self-serving. Talk to me about that.

Sydney Ghazarian: Well, maybe we should just send the subsidies directly to Mother Earth, and if you know, why have the middleman. But, you know, the fact is that the climate environmental track record of the Big Three is atrocious. The climate movement generally, you know, we generally target oil corporations, but the reality is that historically, the auto industry has been in lockstep and waging war against any and all forms of climate regulation or environmental standards. It was in 2020 that E&E news published a report revealing that scientists at General Motors and Ford knew as early as the 1960s, that car emissions caused climate change. And when their scientists took these findings to top executives, they were ignored, buried suppressed, rather than these companies doing anything to protect the environment and humanity from life threatening pollution that their products were creating. They spent the subsequent decades working to crush any proposed environmental standards, as well as electric vehicles themselves. In a testimony in Congress. In 1967, a Ford executive argued against federal investments in electric vehicle research, arguing that the industry was actively developing EV technology, and would be ready to bring electric cars to market within a decade. Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]

Nima: To be fair, that was only 56 years ago.

Sydney Ghazarian: Oh, only 50–I mean, you would think and 56 years, when I look out my window, I wouldn’t almost exclusively see gas-powered vehicles about.

Nima: Yeah, that’s ridiculous. Like, that means like that Ford executive just made the Jetsons future not happen.

Sydney Ghazarian: Exactly. Just a little fib that sort of set us back on progress on, you know, this existential climate crisis by 50. Some years, no big deal. It’s just, you know, our lives. But yeah, I mean, this is this kind of the behavior of them in 1990, when the California Air Resources Board passed the mandate that made the production and sale of zero emissions vehicles, a requirement for the seven major automakers that sell cars in the US, those automakers band together to defeat the passage of further regulations and to undermine the California mandate. And these are just small examples in decades littered with uninterrupted and generally successful attempts to squash EVs by auto executives in the cells. And they’re still doing it. You know, as Sarah pointed out in the In These Times article that came out this week about auto workers and environmentalist. All the Big Three automakers are members of a trade group called the Alliance for Automotive Innovation which is lobbied against a proposed Biden administration role to require that two out of three new passenger cars sold in the US are electric vehicles by 2032. So if I’m worried about anyone killing EVs, or standards for vehicle electrification, if the auto industry bosses themselves because they have a record of doing it.

Adam: So I’m going to read you a tweet, two tweets, by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. In his statement on the auto strike, he said, quote, “Auto workers deserve a raise. And they deserve to have their jobs protected from Joe Biden stupid climate mandates that are destroying the US auto industry and making China rich.” Totally meaningless. “Every dime the auto industry is spending on Joe Biden’s radical climate and dates should be spent on workers. They deserve better wages, better hours, and a guarantee their jobs will be saved, not shipped off to China.” Now setting aside the fact that no worker, no press release by UAW I’ve seen has mentioned really China, I know that they’ve threatened Mexico but China’s just is his own hobbyhorse, he has to bring up China in every conversation no matter what it’s about.

But the idea that somehow workers have like, reached out to Josh Hawley right, salt of the earth, and said, you know, is it higher wages? Is it shorter work weeks? Is it job guarantees? No, it’s the focus of his tweets are this these climate mandates because again, the point isn’t to sort of graft on these right wing grievances about climate change. And I’ve read through a lot of UAW press releases, public statements, interviews, I’ve never heard any union representative say anything about them opposing the mandates, per se, they just say they want to be have a just transition and go along with what sort of the next big thing. Can you talk about this increasingly popular conservative talking point that again, I think rest kind of pivots on a similar point, a myth? Can you talk about this right wing obsession with this idea, that Joe Worker, that he gets home with his lunch pail and his overalls, and he sits down and puts on the ballgame and the first thing he thinks in his mind, he goes, Goddamn that Joe Biden and his climate mandates? Obviously, I’m sure there’s like a worker who does that, but it doesn’t seem to be represented in anything I’ve seen.

Sydney Ghazarian: Yeah, I mean, I think that, well, this is not just a conservative talking point. As you know, it’s both a liberal and a conservative talking point, but the conservatives are taking advantage of it to try and split support for Biden. And I think we’re seeing a lot of articles that are framing the UAW strike as pitting Biden’s priorities of climate and labor against each other. And that’s coming from both conservative and liberal media. But what this framing bizarrely neglects is that corporations’ role in making decisions about how money from Biden’s IRA is spent. The problem is not a climate agenda opposing a labor agenda. It’s Big Three CEOs opposing a climate and labor agenda that might take away from their personal profit. And the problem is that Big Three are making decisions in defiance of Biden’s stated priorities. But also Biden is letting them get away with it. But you know, I think this narrative is sort of clever, right? I think both sides are exploiting it. Quite frankly, I think that the conservatives are trying to use this as a wedge issue to divide folks working class folks away from Biden. And I think that the liberal media is using it to sort of put a wedge between strikers and liberals, and so that there’s less support for it. So I think it’s being weaponized all across the media, regardless of their political ideology.

Nima: Can you talk to us a bit about the solidarity between climate organizations and labor unions like the UAW, the work that’s being done, and also how the new leadership of the UAW under Shawn Fain, you know, a challenger to the, to the kind of old guard, you know, he talks openly about the urgency of the climate crisis need for just transition? Like, where is that solidarity going? And how can that become more of the narrative? I mean, I guess that’s the work that we’re all trying to do. But you know, where do you see the narrative kind of moving with more solidarity across what I mean, you so rightly kind of dispelled the notion that these are siloed things, right? It’s not like, well, there’s climate activists over here, and then auto workers over here, it’s like auto workers can also be climate activists and vice versa. So not really talking about silos in that way. But where can this solidarity lead? And what is the work that you are doing at your organization to kind of promote a new narrative of cooperation and connection across labor and across these movements?

Sydney Ghazarian: Yeah, so several months ago, through my work at the Labor Network for Sustainability, we had already seen that this was coming down the pike. So we started having these conversations. And we put out an open letter to the Big Three auto CEOs calling on them to meet the workers demands from the climate movement. And the letter launch that was been coordinated through Labor Network for Sustainability, has also given way to the creation of a UAW solidarity table for climate and social movement, allies including 350, Earthworks, Sierra Club, Public Citizen, Greenpeace, Mighty Earth, Industrious Labs, Sunrise Movement, Gen Z for Change, Jobs with Justice, Evergreen Action, Green New Deal Network, and many many more. And everyone has been so enthusiastic about supporting auto workers and figuring out how they can help. We had a solidarity call on August 17 that the Labor Network for Sustainability hosted and it was co sponsored by a dozen climate groups. And during the call, hundreds of climate activists left voicemails for Big Three auto CEOs demanding that they could give workers a fair contract. And I just got back from Detroit where the Labor Network for Sustainability joined Public Citizen and Mighty Earth to do a banner-drop action and leafleting at the Detroit Auto Show focused on why the climate movement is standing with auto workers on the frontlines of the EV transition. And I am the luckiest person in the world because I get to work with all of these creative and brilliant and dedicated climate activists who are 100%, behind the auto workers. And I think that all of them have been extremely excited to see Fain and UAW really come out in front of this narrative and say we support a clean energy transition. And it needs to be a just transition, because that’s what we’re fighting for, too. And I hope that this is a way for us to come together and really fight for those things in tandem moving forward. Because, quite frankly, we’re going up against, you know, major enemies, and those are the corporations and we need each other in order to win.

Adam: Yeah, because again, I think that from their perspective, because a lot of these talking points are just emanating from the CEOs themselves. It’s a pro-CEO talking point to talk about how the union is gonna mucky up EVs. And what it seems like to me is they can’t directly say they oppose workers. So it’s just a clever way of getting around that by saying that onerous demands are going to prevent us from curbing climate change, because otherwise they would have and of course, Shawn Fain says, well, labor costs is only 5% of the cost of a car, you could double that and still make billions in profits. So clearly, our demands are not the thing standing in the way of profitable, you have in profitable EVs because your profits were $250 billion over the last 16 years and $21 billion in just the first six months of 2023. So yeah, it’s a popular talking point, because in many ways, it’s what exactly what I mean, quite frankly, if I had no soul, I made $400,000 a year in a public relations department is what I would have come up with, honestly. I mean, seriously, because he there’s, it’s, there’s only so many angles you can take on this. And this is, again, if you want to erode liberal support, you have to find it, extensively, a liberal criticism of the strike and the whole tension, because there’s 1000 of these goddamn articles they’ve been running in the fact that a lot of them are coming out of these rags, like x to some political means they’re planted by PR departments, this idea that there’s this inherent tension, it’s just such, it’s such an obvious PR talking point, you’re gonna it’s not reflected in what the actual head of Labor says. And every article will say, Well, you know, Shawn Fain says he supports, well, then what the fuck are you writing about it, then? They want to just transition, they’re not going to use EV as a pretext to cut jobs but that’s not the same thing as opposing, you know, cleaner cars.

Nima: Yeah, but, Adam, didn’t you know, that if you just you know, are not unionized any work for Elon Musk? at Tesla, then, you know, there’s a great vibe over there, quote, unquote, that’s a direct quote, it’s a great vibe over there. They quote, are, you know, playing music and having fun and quote, sure, these are literal quotes. And really, it just feels like you know, unions are just played out man, this is Musk’s world and, and supposed to EV our way out of it, you know, pushing anti strike talking points is not always the same as pushing anti union talking points. And there’s a they’re really kind of coupled here that it’s not just this strike is doing XYZ, the strike is hurting climate activism. But there’s the undercurrent of, because the face of Ev, for so long has been Elon Musk and Tesla, that because that is the model and he has non union auto plants that therefore, it’s not just that a UAW strike is hurting the EV industry, but that there’s this model that relies on non-union workers that is actually preferred.

Sydney Ghazarian: Well, I think that whenever Elon Musks bust a unionization effort, and I think it undermines the ability of workers to benefit from climate initiatives, which subsequently undermines working class support for environmental policies, and it fuels right wing media’s attempts to conflate saving the planet with the destruction of family sustaining jobs, like there is a direct correlation between that talking point and the ability for us to actually build the power necessary to win what we actually want to win which is a Green New Deal and a both sustainable and just green economy. Climate activists understand that we need unions in order to have the power necessary to take on the corporations that are holding climate progress back like the Big Three auto CEOs, like Elon Musk, like all of these different corporations that have been actively undermining climate progress for decades, I think that we’re in this new era where the main terrain of struggle for the Green New Deal is happening from below, where we’re fighting in our workplaces, states and communities. And we see that the UAW struggle for a fair contract so that we can have good green union EV jobs and adjust transition is crucial for ensuring that people are willing to take the leap of faith into a fossil-free economy. And I think that we know if we want to have the power necessary to win our demands, we need to come together with workers, we need to have organized power, which is a union in order to win these things. And when they undermine unions, I think that we’re undermining our own ability to win.

Nima: Well, I think that is a great place to leave it. Thank you so much, Sydney Ghazarian. Organizer at the Labor Network for Sustainability for joining us today on Citations Needed. It’s been so great speaking with you.

Sydney Ghazarian: Thank you so much for having me.

Nima: And that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Stay tuned for more full-length episodes coming your way. We are now into our seventh season. So thank you for sticking around with us. It is great to be back after our little break. So stay tuned for new episodes coming your way. Of course in the meantime, you can follow us on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook Citations Needed, or become a supporter of the show through NeededPodcast. We are 100% listener funded so all your support is incredibly appreciated. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you for listening. Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, September 20, 2023.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.