Web conference on the transformation of the automotive industry as an international project

Manuela Kropp, Project Manager at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office

The value chains in the automotive industry are spread across multiple European countries (reaching from Spain to, for example, Serbia) as well as across North and South America. The automotive industry is a global heavyweight, and therefore the discussion about a possible transformation of the automotive industry towards environmentally friendly forms of transport must also be a global one. In 2019, 65 million new cars were sold worldwide, while millions of people work in the automotive industry and for its suppliers. Not only are the value chains spread across many countries, as mentioned above, but they also account for much of the manufacturing industry in the respective local economies. But the automotive industry is in crisis – even before the coronavirus crisis, sales figures were falling, simply due to overproduction in the market. Advancing global warming shows us that some of the automotive industry must switch to producing other, environmentally friendly forms of transport, namely local public transport for short journeys, and trains for passengers and freight travelling longer distances, because transport is the only sector where greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to rise over the years. This reveals the need for a global Green New Deal for the transport sector, with an investment programme in local public transport and in rail, resulting in collective mobility solutions for all.

We invited trade unionists, politicians and climate activists from the United States and the European Union to discuss where a start could be made on transforming the automotive industry. The conference made it crystal clear that the United States, as a car-based country with vast rural areas and weakened trade unions, faces much greater challenges than Germany, for example, in encouraging debate on the necessary transformation of the automotive industry and promoting actual alternatives involving local public transport. The speakers from the United States reported on local initiatives to address anti-pedestrian and anti-cyclist infrastructure and US society’s fixation on cars, as well as discussing grassroots projects in a deindustrialised city like Detroit that is having to deal with the impact of the massive structural change of recent decades. Meanwhile, the speakers from the EU addressed the urgent need for more extensive rail and local public transport, specific industrial policy measures and trade-union proposals to get the transformation of the automotive industry off the ground.


Conference programme:

  • Introduction: Andreas Thomsen, Head of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office
  • Martin Schirdewan, Co-President of the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) in the European Parliament
  • Richard Feldman, James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, United States
  • Angie Schmitt, author of Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, United States
  • Carsten Hübner, former Executive Director of the Transatlantic Labor Institute, Tennessee, United States
  • Frederic Speidel, Head of Strategy, Executive Board of IG Metall, Lower Saxony, Germany

Moderator: Manuela Kropp, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Brussels Office


Andreas Thomsen, the Head of the RLS Brussels Office, signalled the urgent need to promote collective forms of mobility instead of using cars. He said that the impending climate crisis alone showed us, each and every day, just how important this was. He said it was crucial that the situation of workers in the automotive industry be taken into account here, because part of the German welfare model was based on this. We should therefore discuss how international trade policy and a European industrial policy must be designed to support rail and local public transport.

Martin Schirdewan, Co-President of the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) in the European Parliament and an MEP for the German party DIE LINKE (The Left), pointed to the upcoming double transformation (ecological and digital) and indicated that the digital transformation would create new means of production and a new ‘owner class’, which would have a corresponding impact on the future of work, social security systems and the distribution of wealth in society. He said that the current coronavirus crisis in particular had massively increased inequalities in the distribution of added value generated by society. The environmental transformation required would of course have a massive impact on the millions of workers in the automotive industry and its supply chain, making it all the more important for there to be a just transition for workers and at the same time a reduction in working hours to distribute the work more fairly. In his view, the automotive industry’s product range must be diversified, with fewer vehicles for individual use and more for rail and local public transport. He said that there was an urgent need to shift freight transport from road to rail. However, he pointed out that plug-in hybrids were not yet a convincing solution, and the jury was still out regarding the environmental credentials of battery-powered vehicles, given that it was not yet clear what would happen with the recycling of the batteries. What’s more, the environmental status of electric cars is further compromised if they run on electricity generated by fossil fuels. In his opinion, the EU Hydrogen Strategy could offer a potential solution for heavy haulage, but bearing in mind that green hydrogen cannot yet be produced in sufficient quantities. He said there was an urgent need to boost local public transport, which must be affordable for all or even offered for free.

Richard Feldman from the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center in Detroit in the United States reflected on the various technological revolutions which Detroit, for instance, had experienced and is experiencing, and which had led time and again to shifts in production. He looked back at how the industrial revolution had used steam power to mechanise production; how the expansion of the electricity, telegraph and rail networks had facilitated mass production; and then how electronics, information technology and the digital revolution had led to the further automation of production. He said that this made it even more important to switch from mass centralised production to local, decentralised community production. He challenged what he called the ‘J-O-B system’ and stressed the importance of strengthening local structures in order to deliver a genuine Green New Deal, as he believed that climate change meant that we were standing on the cusp of a whole new epoch.

Angie Schmitt, from Ohio in the United States, who has been posting on a blogging website called Streetsblog for many years (https://usa.streetsblog.org/author/angie/), explained the important relationship between urban planning and sustainable transport systems. She reported that there was a movement in the United States, which had primarily taken hold in a handful of coastal cities, campaigning for public transport both locally and over longer distances. She said that in terms of the transport sector, though, the trend was in the opposite direction: SUV sales were growing, meaning that the US automotive industry was actually moving backwards. Since this trend had started, the number of pedestrian deaths had also risen, as SUVs cause more serious injuries. The increase in SUV production was, of course, down to the enormous profits these vehicles generate for the automotive industry. She also pointed out that both Ohio and Michigan – which have big automotive industries – are swing states in the presidential election, and so neither the Republicans nor the Democrats had been prepared to address the political hot potatoes of public transport and a modal shift. However, Angie said there were also positive examples like the cities of Seattle and Minneapolis, which had invested heavily in expanding public transport and had significantly increased the number of people commuting by public transport. Other cities had been less successful, however, including Los Angeles, where there had been massive investment in new rail systems but where bus use had fallen. She pointed to this being related to the issue of racial justice, because many white commuters prefer to avoid buses, which are mostly used by blacks. Last but not least, Angie talked about the link between transport planning and the issue of housing or gentrification.

Carsten Hübner, the former Executive Director of the Transatlantic Labor Institute in Tennessee in the United States, emphasised that the debate about reform that was needed in rural areas was completely different from in their urban counterparts. He said that the ultra-flexibility of today’s working world alone, with its excessive working hours, basically made using local public transport impossible and forced workers to rely on their cars. Highly flexible mobility was simply expected of all employees. In addition, he said that the suburbs were designed in such a way as to kill off public space and public infrastructure, because the neoliberal lobby’s goal was to privatise everything. Carsten also referred to the BlueGreen Alliance, through which the North American trade unions had joined the transformation debate (The BlueGreen Alliance Manufacturing Agenda: A National Blueprint for Clean Technology Manufacturing Leadership and Industrial Transformation (https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/usw-backs-bluegreen-alliance-national-manufacturing-agenda-301083931.html)). He concluded by pointing to the dual function of the trade unions, as both political lobbyists and membership organisations. As such, he regarded e-mobility as a building block for securing future employment.

Frederic Speidel from IG Metall Lower Saxony presented his trade union’s proposals for overcoming the various crises facing us. Both coronavirus and the environmental crisis were life-or-death issues, he indicated, not least for those working in the automotive industry. He said that IG Metall, with its 2 million members, of whom 500,000 were employed in the automotive industry, ensured decent work and collective agreements. IG Metall had presented a strategy paper on emissions standards back in 2016, and in 2018 it had organised a nationwide transformation conference. He said that IG Metall was proposing various means of overcoming the coronavirus and structural crises in the medium term: a transformation fund for suppliers to ensure the provision of public and private capital; a ‘best owner group’ to support suppliers involved in manufacturing internal combustion engines; and regional transformation clusters to ensure a preventive regional structural policy and avoid the decimation of the industry. These proposals would be fleshed out at the forthcoming automotive summit in mid-November 2020.

In the brief final discussion, disappointment was expressed at how the debate on the transformation of the automotive industry had been going on for many years. It was also made clear how important transatlantic dialogue was in this regard, especially with a view to consolidating regional economic cycles and putting a Green New Deal into practice. The disillusionment voiced by some was tempered by other participants in the discussion who were sure that the transformation could succeed as long as there was broad-based support from workers.



Manuela Kropp

Project Manager, RLS Brussels Office