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The Rise Of Electric Cars, The Fall Of Autoworker Jobs

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Last November, just after Thanksgiving, General Motors announced that it would eliminate 4,000 auto manufacturing jobs by shutting down plants in Baltimore County; Warren, Michigan; and Lordstown, Ohio.

But then in March, GM switched gears. The company said it was building a new $300 million auto plant north of Detroit. However, the new plant in Orion, Michigan, would employ only 400 workers – not 4,000. And the workers would primarily be building electric vehicles, not petroleum-fueled cars and trucks.

The change was a sign of the times. The growing popularity of Tesla electric cars has proven that zero emission vehicles are increasingly marketable and functional. And California’s tightening of fuel-efficiency standards – although under regulatory assault by the Trump Administration—is, in fact, driving GM, Ford and other manufacturers to build more electric vehicles.

This is a great news for the climate and public health – because burning less petroleum will mean less greenhouse gas pollution and fewer asthma attacks.

But the advance of technology also has a dark side. Electric motors are simpler than combustion engines, with fewer moving parts; and so require fewer workers to assemble them.

The United Autoworkers has estimated that the shift from combustion engines to electric vehicles could cost more than 35,000 jobs in the U.S.

This is a real problem. Beyond electric cars, the advancement of computer systems that allow self-driving cars and trucks will also eliminate millions of jobs for truck drivers. Coal-mining companies have been laying off thousands of workers, not because of environmental regulations, but because technological innovation has made natural gas, as well as solar and wind power, cheaper than coal.

The list of technology’s casualties is a long one.  The Internet sucked all the profit out of newspapers and put thousands of journalists out of work. Tax preparation software is replacing jobs for accountants. YouTube and Spotify rob musicians of the profits they deserve for their creativity and hard work. Amazon.com first bankrupted bookstores, and is now killing off many other brick and mortar retailers.

We can’t stop the advance of technology – and it would be foolish to even try.  For one thing, technology brings all kinds of wonderful advantages, such as the ability to have any book or product in the world delivered to your doorstep, tomorrow, with the tap of an iPhone.

In the early 19th century, textile workers in England – the Luddites – rose up and smashed the machines that were threatening their jobs. The British Army ended that protest with gunfire, criminal trials, and executions.

Although we can’t stop innovation, what we can do—as voters in a Democracy -- is re-engineer our understanding of what it means to be a citizen in the modern American economy.  As autoworkers, truck drivers, and accountants see their livelihoods destroyed by technology, we can elect a government that mandates a high minimum wage for the new types of jobs that emerge afterwards.  

We can adapt to economic Darwinism by providing humane benefits to all workers and people, like free health care, education, and child care, funded by taxing the huge profits of the companies that own the software that is taking away jobs.

But beyond reshaping public policy to serve the public, we humans can adapt by transforming our own thinking about who we are and what in us is valuable.

This Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks to what should be our primary job: loving our friends and family; giving our time to those who need us; and raising a glass to the miracle of one more day on this earth.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.