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A commentary on Bernd Riexinger’s Left-Wing Green New Deal proposal

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The consequences of undeniable, anthropogenic climate change and the equally pressing push for sustainable economies and consumption habits make the mobility transition inevitable. By mobility transition we mean a radical change in mobility behaviour with a concomitant reduction in “forced” traffic.

Uwe Fritsch is Chairman of the Volkswagen Brunswick Works Council,Mark Seeger is IG Metall Representative Body Leader at Volkswagen Brunswick, and Jörg Köther serves as the Technical Advisor to the Volkswagen Brunswick Works Council. This commentary on Bernd Riexinger’s Left-Wing Green New Deal proposal first appeared in LuXemburgand was translated by Gegensatz Translation Collective.

This means the end of “business as usual”. For most of our colleagues in the automotive and its supplier industries, this is obvious. The central questions are: Is a restructuring of the automotive and its supplier industries even possible? If so, what would the social consequences be? What are the preconditions for such change? What could restructuring look like in concrete terms? Finally, how can our fellow workers be actively involved in such change and help it gain acceptance?

First-hand experience at Volkswagen in recent years has shown how difficult it can be to manage change in operational practice as well as the resistance it can encounter from all parties involved, especially employees. One example is the widespread scepticism directed towards change and the need for retraining. Inadequate communication about the orientation/direction of changes set to occur and the lack of long-term corporate strategy are also counterproductive to the extensive restructuring of the automotive and its supplier industries that needs to take place.

Of urgent necessity is a debate that extends beyond the realm of operations. This means a comprehensive discussion involving trade unions, scientists, politicians, and as many key figures from the areas of environmentalism, sustainability, and transportation as possible. Having these kinds of discussions is a prerequisite for these groups being able to jointly develop viable pathways for the restructuring of the automotive industry as an integral part of the broader mobility transition. The paper by Riexinger et al., for example, takes positive steps in this direction.

At the same time, the debate must remain anchored in the workplace. Indeed, it is employees urgently demanding answers about the future of their jobs and living conditions. At the end of the day, employees are those most directly and immediately affected by restructuring. Their concerns are no less important to the broader social debate and must be taken just as seriously as those of other stakeholders. Demands for things like the radical dismantling of the automobile industry, bans on certain types of vehicle, or a general halt to buying do not contribute to an inclusive debate because they are made from extreme positions and are rarely accompanied by concrete perspectives on work, employment, and production.

Indiscriminate criticism of the automotive industry as a whole, as exemplified by the concept put forward by Die Linke, is not helpful. Here it is necessary to distinguish between different automobile manufacturers and their respective capital strategies. In this context, the influence of employee participation in decision-making processes  also needs to be highlighted, given that it can exert a significant influence on corporate strategy. Although its form (and thus its scope) can vary considerably between companies, employee co-determination can provide significant impetus for change.

An argument that insists on clinging to the accusation that the automotive industry’s only reason for changing is to safeguard future profits is to narrow in terms of scope; under capitalism, after all, this is hardly a surprising discovery. Car manufacturers’ bringing SUVs onto the market to fulfil high demand is also unlikely to raise many eyebrows. Here, in addition to a general critique of capitalism, it is also important to consider the impact of consumer choice. Obviously, sustainability and the mobility transition have not yet gained the necessary clout when it comes to the influencing purchasing decisions to the extent demanded by the current environmental situation. This makes it clear that significant change will not occur without intensified regulation and political intervention in the transport and mobility sectors. Questions around market intervention and corporate decision-making therefore belong on the agenda of any discussion that seeks to be inclusive and focused on obtaining results.

Here we present a number of proposals for such a discussion.  

  1. The automotive industry and the people it employs will only have a (sustainable) future if its companies—and the sector overall—actively confront challenges pertaining to mobility. Why? Without environmental, democratic, and social restructuring, the automotive industry risks losing both its acceptance as well as its economic, political, and employment significance. Which concrete environmental policies will be required and what “the” right way to restructure will look like remain to be seen.
  2. As we have seen, transformation can only be successful if all stakeholders participate equally. The need for safe, fair working conditions that operate in harmony with nature must also taken into account. Why? Like all of us, automotive industry employees are also consumers and producers of carbon emissions. They share an interest in preserving the environment and limiting the consequences of climate change. Their diverse perspectives and concerns must be used productively. This is not about stirring up fears of loss, but about jointly developing designs for what mobility and the nature of work might look like in the future.
  3. Any form of conversion or change should be accompanied by initiatives that provide decent work and social security, not least because the acceptance of any kind of change will be contingent on such provisions. It is impossible to ignore the fact that in the current climate, people in general and workers in particular are sceptical about structural change and transformation. Confronted with a number of unanswered questions about the future, many employees fear that they will lose out as the result ofchange. This scepticism and the perceived threat of downward social mobility run the risk of fuelling the spread of right-wing populism. This makes it all the more important to discuss such concepts as those put forward by Die Linke, and to continue working on them together to develop new approaches.
  4. Any mobility transition, regardless of the form it takes, Any must be socially equitable and therefore accompanied by political protection. This includes taking into account the the range of different mobility requirements and existing infrastructure levels that exist between metropolitan areas and rural regions. The long-demanded possibility of being able to live without a privately-owned car must also become a tangible reality. This is not always possible everywhere, especially as things are currently set out, and must be facilitated through the implementation of new sharing concepts. 
  5. The transformation of the automotive industry and the mobility transition are two sides of the same coin. Both must be considered together. It is not enough only to describe the requirements and objectives of the mobility transition in detail. Integrated industrial and employment policies for the transport sector and beyond are also needed.
  6. Social and employment-related needs related to the transformation of the automotive industry have been given too little consideration in the current debate on the mobility transition and the sustainable restructuring of the industry. For example:What will the jobs of the future look like? How secure will they be? What alternatives to cheap labour and wage cuts are conceivable? To what extent are workers willing to undergo further training? The current public discourse on the mobility transition and the restructuring/transformation of the automotive industry has thus far only provided inadequate responses to both industrial and employment policy challenges thus far, with environmental concerns predominating. Die Linke’s proposal at least centres the issue of employment as being one worthy of equal consideration.
  7. Internal debates within trade unions have also shown a lack of necessary vision, with too much focus being placed on technological solutions (electromobility)and an insufficiency in responding to the necessary, overarching state and political regulation that will be required (the state’s role is instead reduced to the provision of critical infrastructure). In the 1990s, discussions surrounding this issue at IG Metall took a much broader view (see: automobile-environment-transportation and LuXemburg 3/2010), and a similar open-mindedness is much-needed today.
  8. Changes in propulsion technology mark the transition to a new technological pathway. The revolution in propulsion, however, represents only one part of the mobility transition and is by no means a sufficient driver of change on its own. Alone, however, this element does present the automotive industry with enormous challenges with respect to employment policy. The predicted job losses in the industry as a result of the change in propulsion technology exceed the known political horizons provided by past examples of controlled structural change (e.g. in the steel industry). Facilitating the propulsion revolution requires regional transformation councils where labour and the environment are not at odds with one another, a point on which employees, IG Metall, and Die Linke all find common ground. Such councils could form the basis for an active culture of worker participation.