Opinion | Energy & Environment

We must invest in a transportation transition — and workers

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

This year the U.S. experienced an extreme hurricane season, with damage covering the Gulf Coast to the Northeast, all while experiencing an intense fire season and heatwaves in the West. Scientists have been clear for years: We must act to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. The World Health Organization has concluded that climate change is the "single biggest health threat facing humanity.

At the same time, the U.S. economy has become grossly unequal and is increasingly precarious for workers. Preventing the worst outcomes of climate disaster will require big changes to our economy, which runs on the burning of fossil fuels predominantly in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. But we can and must shift to a clean energy economy and ensure that we have the high-quality, stable careers that we need.

Transportation is the largest source of climate-disrupting pollution in the U.S. Fortunately, electric vehicle (EV) technology has progressed to the point where we can now start replacing tens of millions of fossil-fuel vehicles with EVs. A bold investment will help ensure a transition which, if done thoughtfully, will spur the development of an innovative and high-road EV manufacturing sector with good jobs for hundreds of thousands of Americans. The alternative is to delay and massively hurt our environment, miss a golden opportunity to spur good job creation, and worst of all, leave behind low-income families and kids who bear the brunt of air pollution.  

In the Build Back Better Act, the House has proposed restoring and extending the $7,500 tax credit for consumers who purchase an  electric vehicle (EV). It also offers an additional $4,500 credit for vehicles built by workers who have the rights and protections of union representation. This is a wise policy, since unions are a highly effective way to achieve good jobs by allowing fair negotiations over wages, benefits, safety, and working conditions. 

It's clear that non-union automakers don't agree, and have been lobbying hard against these popular EV tax incentives. They claim that their workers have freely chosen against joining a union. But our research and experience on the ground show that this is far from the case. There's a reason why 65 percent of Americans support unions, yet only about 10 percent of workers actually have one. Workers have been unable to have free and fair elections at their places of work. 

A recent survey found that 43 percent of workers surveyed at a bus factory in Alabama had concerns they wanted to raise but didn't because they were afraid of retaliation from managers. It turns out that these fears are well-founded, as 52 percent of the surveyed workers had in fact suffered retaliation after filing a complaint.

For decades, corporations have done everything in their power to create fear in the workplace.

In 2017, for example, when workers tried to organize a union at a Nissan factory in Mississippi, the company ran an agreesive anti-union campaign and is accused of threatening and bribing workers to vote against unionizing. The National Labor Relations Board charged Nissan and their anti-union consultant with threatening to close the plant if workers unionized, a central theme of anti-union efforts. On top of that, Nissan forced workers to attend anti-union meetings with their direct supervisors.

This type of captive audience meeting, in which workers could potentially be fired for asking a question, are legally permitted, but bosses often don't stop there. In over 41 percent of union elections, employers are charged with breaking labor law, and in 20 percent of elections, they illegally fire workers for organizing.

We cannot rely on corporations who appear to put profit over people to protect our planet and respect workers' rights. To build a sustainable future, we must invest our public dollars in a transition to electric transportation that will help put the brakes on climate change while also developing a manufacturing sector that creates high-quality, union careers that sustain families and communities. The Build Back Better Act is our chance to build an economy that puts people first. Let's not squander it.

Erica Iheme is the southern director for Jobs to Move America.

Katherine García is the acting director of Sierra Club's Clean Transportation for All campaign.

This piece has been updated.