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UAW's new contract helps other car companies' workers — but what about Tesla?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The United Auto Workers won lucrative new deals that promised more money for union members, who are voting on them now. But the UAW also wants to expand its fight to give autoworkers a middle-class lifestyle to foreign automakers and to Tesla. NPR's Camila Domonoske joins us now to discuss. Good morning, Camila.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So why is the union prioritizing organizing at companies like Tesla?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, so the UAW used to represent a huge swath of the auto industry, but now most cars are made by nonunion workers at nonunionized plants. So the UAW wants to organize a lot of different companies. Tesla gets a lot of attention because they're an American auto company. They're growing really rapidly, and they dominate the EV sector, widely seen as the future of the auto industry. And expanding will help the union and gives the union more power. The union also argues it'll help more workers access the kinds of wins they just got. I spoke to Patty Ellison. She's a union member in Michigan, and she said she sees some nonunionized autoworkers complaining about these big contracts.

PATTY ELLISON: How it's not fair that we're getting this, but they're not. Well, join the union.

DOMONOSKE: And then, she says, we all benefit.

FADEL: So what are the barriers to trying to win over Tesla workers in particular?

DOMONOSKE: So Tesla has resisted unionization before, both through legal methods like persuasion campaigns and methods that are illegal, according to the agency that monitors this - things like firing people who are trying to unionize, threatening to take away stock options. Those stock options themselves are also interesting. They're unusual for the auto industry. And depending on timing - I mean, obviously Tesla stock - you could make a lot of money off of it, which might make it hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison with union wages.

You've got Elon Musk, who personally opposes the UAW. He said that that union destroys productivity and betrays workers, embezzles from them. And, you know, on that point, the previous leadership of the UAW was deeply corrupt. There are former leaders serving jail time for taking bribes from automakers, stealing dues from members, which didn't help organizing efforts. So add it all up, and despite previous efforts, Tesla workers never really even came close to joining the union.

FADEL: So why would the UAW think this time might be different?

DOMONOSKE: Well, they say, look. We're under new leadership. That old corrupt regime - it's gone. We've got a new leader, Shawn Fain. He's fiery and ambitious - reformer. We just got big wins in these new contracts. Big picture - this economy gives workers more leverage than they used to have. Popular support for unions is up. I will note, with all that, it's still going to be an uphill battle - no question. There's just no guarantees about what's going to happen here.

FADEL: And what if the union doesn't win this battle?

DOMONOSKE: You know, other workers might still benefit even if they aren't covered by this contract. Under these deals, UAW worker pay is going up a lot - in some cases, more than doubling. The top rate's going to hit $42 an hour. And that pushes up wages for other workers, too. In some cases, nonunionized companies pay more to try to prevent their workers from wanting to unionize. Toyota just gave its workers a 9% raise, and UAW President Shawn Fain - he nodded to that recently. He said that UAW, for Toyota workers, stands for you are welcome.

FADEL: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thanks, Camila.

DOMONOSKE: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF VANILLA BEACH'S "LEAFY GREENS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.