An electric vehicle charges on a street.
Credit: Ivan Radic / Flickr

The following commentary was written by Marcelina Pedraza and Gina Ramirez. Pedraza is a member of IBEW and United Auto Workers Local 551 at Ford Chicago Assembly Plant, has been a union electrician for 24 years, and is board president of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. Ramirez is a Midwest outreach manager at NRDC, working to further sustainable land use and zoning rules that can provide crucial protections to areas of Chicago, like the Southeast Side, that are burdened with cumulative industrial pollution. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

Illinois is at the forefront of an emerging electric vehicle (EV) industry, yet the workers building this new economic engine are under constant threat of being left behind. 

Our community has been hit hard by the decline of the steel industry. Our neighbors who worked and still live here were left with a toxic legacy after the industry practically disappeared. After the steel mills that once employed thousands of people closed down, the pollution that was left behind has led to higher rates of asthma, cancer, and other respiratory diseases.

We now have an opportunity to do it the right way by making a just transition into a clean economy. We can take care of our environment and create good quality union jobs in EV manufacturing right here on the Southeast Side of Chicago where we live and work.   

There are a number of things that can be done to ensure a just transition to a clean economy for autoworkers. 

Above all, we need to make sure the state and federal government invest in training programs for workers who are transitioning to new jobs in the clean energy sector. These programs should be designed to ensure workers have the skills they need to succeed in these new jobs. 

We also need our elected officials to support transitioning our existing automotive manufacturing facilities into building electric vehicles and their parts. Federal funds are available to do this, and Illinois is already a major hub for automotive production. With the right funding and support, Illinois can be a major hub for EV production too. 

However, some companies are trying to use the transition to EVs to undermine the power of unions and drive down wages and benefits. 

For too long, corporations have pitted workers against environmental activists, claiming that we can’t have both good jobs and a clean environment. It’s time to put an end to this narrative. We can create good-paying union jobs in the clean energy sector, while also protecting our health and safety.

We must push corporations to clean up their pollution and invest in clean energy jobs and make sure that these jobs are good-paying union jobs that provide benefits and security for workers and their families.

We must also make sure that the transition is fair. Creating policies that encourage new EV manufacturing plants to unionize will give workers a seat at the table to bargain for fair wages and benefits. We need to make sure that the government creates a level playing field for unions so that they are not discriminated against by employers.

The fight for a just transition at the “Big Three” (Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis) is a fight for our entire community because the benefits reach much more than an individual worker at an individual plant. It’s also a fight for our health, our safety, and our future. We must unite and stand together to win this fight.

We should also boost investment in electric public transit, EV charging stations, and all green infrastructure that makes EVs more practical and convenient. This will drive demand and support new jobs. 

Additionally, offering tax credits and incentives for the companies and consumers will encourage more EV manufacturing here in the U.S.

The shift to EVs presents an opportunity to lift up workers and build a fairer economy by giving us a voice through union representation while also growing the clean energy sector. The Southeast Side of Chicago is a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities facing this country as we transition to a clean economy.  As a union worker and environmental activist, we know that we must unite to fight for a just transition to a clean energy economy because we are fighting for the future of our planet and our communities. It is a fight for good-paying union jobs that can support families and a fight for environmental justice and for a cleaner and healthier future for all.