At midnight on Sept. 14, the United Auto Workers’ contract with the Big Three automakers—Stellantis, Ford, and General Motors—expired. As promised by UAW President Shawn Fain, stand-up strikes began promptly at midnight. The first three plants called to strike were the General Motors Assembly Center in Wentzville, Missouri, the Stellantis Assembly Complex in Toledo, Ohio, and the final assembly and paint departments at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan. Videos and photos of autoworkers pouring out of the plants and joining their union siblings on the picket line hit social media like labor’s version of the Super Bowl. On Sept. 22, stand-up strikes expanded to an additional 38 GM and Stellantis assembly plants across 20 states.
Throughout the highly publicized contract negotiations between UAW’s 146,000 autoworker members and their employers at the Big Three automakers, newly elected Fain has been calling for a 32-hour work week—a goal stated by UAW as far back as the 1930s.
“Right now, Stellantis has put its plants on critical status, forcing our members to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day in many cases, week after week, for 90 straight days. That’s not a life,” Fain said on a livestream on Aug. 25. “Critical status, it’s named right because working that much can put anyone in critical condition. It’s terrible for our bodies, it’s terrible for our mental health, and it’s terrible for our family life.”
But it’s not just workers’ personal lives that are impacted by long hours on the job—it’s bad for the planet, too. An often-cited 2012 analysis from UMass Amherst, “Reducing Growth to Achieve Environmental Sustainability: The Role of Work Hours,” authored by Kyle Knight, Eugene A. Rosa, and Juliet B. Schor, concluded that longer working hours lead to increased carbon emissions. A longer work week means we tend to drive more (transportation is responsible for over a quarter of global carbon emissions), consume more resource-intensive products (things like fast food and other necessities of convenience that keep our busy schedules rolling), and burn through more fossil fuel energy like gas and oil. Ultimately, a longer work week puts unsustainable stress on the planet as well as our bodies.
UAW workers know this is true from their own experience. “32 hours, man, I would love that. For the planet, a major thing would be less commuting to work,” says Marcelina Pedraza, a UAW member at the Ford Chicago Assembly Plant, where she works as an electrician and preventive maintenance planner. “I’m a one parent household… one income household, and so I wear many hats, right? I go to work. I work in the home. I work in my union. I work in my community. And I’m exhausted. If I have an extra day off, I would cook more, so I would be making less waste.”
And the research supports Pedraza’s observations. This same 2012 analysis found that a global 10% reduction in working hours could reduce our carbon footprint by 14.6%, our ecological footprint (which measures environmental pressure caused by consumption related to food, housing, transportation, consumer goods, and services) by 12.1%, and CO2 emissions by 4.2%. So cutting the work week by just four hours would result in cuts in CO2 emissions roughly equivalent to the 2021 CO2 emissions of the whole of Pakistan, or about 222,600,000 metric tons.
On our current trajectory, we would need to cut carbon emissions roughly in half from 2019 levels by 2030 (over the course of the next seven years) to keep us below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming—the largely agreed upon safe upper limit of planetary warming for humanity. (And it becomes harder to argue for 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming representing a safe threshold for life on this planet when taking stock of the catastrophic weather events now in regular rotation at 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming.)
In October 2022, the United Nations environment agency declared that barring a “rapid transformation of societies” remaining under 1.5 degrees Celsius no longer achievable. And many scientists no longer view as feasible in anything other than technical posturing. While staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius may no longer represent a realistic target, making 32 hours the new 40 hours is a crucial part of that “rapid transformation” needed to—at minimum—limit warming as much as possible.
Relative ease of implementation also makes the 32-hour work week unique amongst other features of degrowth-aligned programs, or a planned contraction of economies and reduction in resource consumption designed to bring us within the concrete limitations of the planet. With nothing to build out or tear down in a material sense, we could reduce working hours tomorrow and get ourselves all the closer to making those necessary reductions. And unlike other measures for limiting CO2 emissions—like eating less meat and dairy (and, perhaps, bananas)—which set restrictions, the 32-hour work week is not easily framed as another freedom or convenience wrested away from working people. Instead, we get to spend more time with our loved ones, more time doing what we like, and more time enjoying the society we all play a role in creating.
Another key contract demand also intimately linked to movements for environmental justice is setting terms for a just transition as we ramp up the manufacture of electric vehicles and phase down production of internal combustion engines. Compared to the standard gas-guzzler, which requires 6.2 hours of labor to build out, a fully electric vehicle needs only 3.7 hours. Shifting to a shortened work week could help safeguard against the potential reduction in workforce the EV transition could bring. And it could simultaneously speed up this transition, says Christopher Viola, a UAW member at the GM Factory Zero in Detroit, where he works as an electrical problem solver.
“What if instead of getting rid of 20% of workers, we kept the workforce the same and the companies produce 25% more vehicles than they normally would to make this EV transition happen that much faster? Mathematically, it would work,” says Viola. And the faster more EVs are produced, the sooner we can eliminate emissions, at least insofar as EVs contribute towards that, he adds.
This job-sharing model has been used by GM Europe’s (now part of Stellantis) assembly plants before, says Arthur Wheaton, director of Labor Studies at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Rather than reducing their respective workforces, adopting a similar model in US plants could allow the Big Three to retain current employees. “It is certainly worth exploring as the transition to electric vehicles reduces demand for engine and transmission plants,” he says. “If they make different parts in the same plant it can keep good jobs here in the USA.”
The only real losers here are the capitalist class. When working people are provided with an undeniable example of what can be gained from working to save the planet it will be difficult to keep that momentum from swelling to include other environmental measures similarly damaging to capitalists’ interests. And they know it.
While the Teamsters did not end up striking earlier this summer, it is clear that the fire they brought to the labor movement—and their own gains for both labor and climate made by winning installation of air conditioning, fans, and heat shields across UPS’ fleet of vehicles—helped prime public sentiment for UAW’s strike against the Big Three.
Recent Gallup polling showed public support for autoworkers, just prior to the strike on the Big Three, at 75%. A poll from Morning Consult shows support for a 32-hour work week—the most divisive of the union’s demands, per the polling—with 46% of the public in favor and 35% in opposition. Growing public support for the strike perfectly positions UAW to shift the idea of a shortened work week out into the realm of a real and achievable goal for workers.
UAW’s 146,000 autoworker members, led by reform leader and charmingly scripture-citing Fain, hold unique leverage in addressing the most pressing needs of a 21st century world suffering from the scourge that is the billionaire class. The climate collapse and the myriad struggles of beaten down working people across the globe are born of this same effect. Whether a 32-hour work week will be won through UAW’s escalating stand up strikes against the Big Three remains to be seen—but sooner or later, the work week will have to shrink if we’re serious about saving the planet we all live, and work, on.