Automotive Workers in the Era of Just Transition

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Patrik Gažo


Gerpisa colloquium, Brussels (2023)



Current research about the transition of the automotive industry to electromobility often focuses on the technical aspects and dynamics from the economic and institutional point of view, or, on the other hand, it proposes quantitative calculations of the effects on the natural resources needed to produce batteries, etc. However, industry change does not relate only to these technological and organisational issues. First, it is a political question. Every dominant actor involved in the dialogue about the sector's transition, whether it is the state, industry/employers, or trade unions, follows their own agenda and interests (Gažo et al., 2022). As a fact, automobile workers themselves may resist these movements and have very different needs and interests (Henriksson, 2015, 2013). Under-representation and oversimplification of their views are even more alarming when considering that one of the crucial goals of the just transition strategy is to give voice and decision power to those affected the most. Therefore, it is essential to identify and understand their views on this conversion to 'alternative production'.

This applies especially to those countries where the automotive industry has a strong position in employment levels. Central and Eastern Europe will undergo a drastic change in the sector with the introduction of EU's regulation that aims to end the production of cars with internal combustion engines by 2035. Slovakia will be one of the most affected regions - the automotive industry makes up to 13% of the GDP and accounts for up to a quarter of total exports. The automotive sector directly employs about 127,000 people, but in total, it affects up to a quarter million jobs. Slovakia is also the world's largest producer of passenger cars per capita. For instance, Volkswagen is the largest exporter, the largest private employer, the third largest investor and the fourth largest taxpayer (Gažo et al., 2021). The question then arises: How does it affect the people who work there and why is this not a central part of the discussions?

Despite the recent emergence of literature on workers' roles in just transitions, car workers in Slovakia have not been enquired about their views about what that role could look like. Therefore, this paper aims to assess the role and explore workers' attitudes in the automotive industry (with emphasis on blue-collar workers in VW, Bratislava) about the green and just transition of the industry where they work. It highlights the lack of knowledge about the future of automotive production in Central and Eastern European countries with respect to its deep decarbonisation and just transition. The paper also presents the "jobs vs. environment" dilemma and other contradictions and relationships between the interests of automotive workers and the environment. On the side of this, the paper explores how workers' role in just transitions is shaped by prior social struggles and the political economy of green industrial production.



The paper employs the Q-methodology research method (Barry and Proops, 1999) and is conducted from the point of view of blue-collar workers in the Volkswagen plant in Bratislava, Slovakia. Compared to externally ascribed workers' role expectations, this Q study aims to identify workers' attitudes and explore the perception of their role in just transition of the car/mobility industry.

Specifically, the empirical objectives of this case study are the following: 1. to explore their willingness to engage in the transition of the automotive industry's production process to other types of mobility technologies/patterns, and their perceptions as to what could be their role in that transition; and 2. to identify possible opportunities and obstacles that automobile workers face in their effort to be a part of the more significant socio-ecological transformation of society towards decarbonisation.



The results of the paper are based on the state of knowledge in related fields and disciplines and on an empirical case study using the mixed-method approach. So far, three primary workers' discourses on automotive industry transformation have been identified. The first discourse, labelled Transformation by Evolution, is characterised by the emphasis on ecological consumption rather than production and effectiveness of the market solutions. This eco-modernist attitude can be summarised as: "Our role is not important; the key to ecological transition is education and making cars more efficient." The second discourse labelled Transformation by Revolution is rather economically pragmatic: "It is the responsibility of companies and the state; we need a radical change in wages and working conditions and to organise wherever we work." The last one, Transformation by Substitution, also considers the organisation at the workplace as an important strategy, but this group of workers thinks more about the consequences of their job. For instance, they pointed out broader mobility issues and stressed the need to overcome the dominance of passenger cars, whether conventional or electric. However, further analysis will be established. 


Practical and theoretical implications

Considering the theoretical overview and empirical results, the paper evaluates if assembly line workers identify challenges for worker implication in just transition that are not considered in policy making and by theories of worker agency and social-ecological transformation (they point out different issues, and mix/score them differently). In addition, it explores whether the range and strengths of these subjective positions suggest specific worker preferences, their future behaviours, and possible coalitions (among them/with other social groups). Comparison of preferences may point us to potential places where the conflict and dynamics between worker interests or strategies and social-ecological transformation of mobility/industrial production and wage work/mode of production/human-capital-nature relation, in general, can be challenged/overcame/theoretically better understood. In this way, the paper helps better understand and theorise the role of industrial workers in just transitions.



Barry, John and John Proops. 1999. 'Seeking Sustainability Discourses with Q Methodology'.             Ecological Economics 28(3):337–45.

GAŽO, Patrik, Monika MARTIŠKOVÁ a Thomas SMITH. The transformation of the Slovak and Czech automotive industries : stakeholders' perspectives and barriers towards an ecological mobility industry. International Journal of Automotive Technology and Management. 2022, roč. 22, č. 2, s. 202-221. ISSN 1470-9511. doi:10.1504/IJATM.2022.10044977.

GAŽO, Patrik, Monika MARTIŠKOVÁ a Thomas SMITH. Transition of the Automotive Industry to an Ecological Mobility Industry (Czechia, Slovakia). In Manuela Kropp. The Need for Transformation – Current Challenges for the International Automotive Sector. Brusel: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 2021. s. 134-206.

Henriksson, L., 2015. Can Autoworkers Save the Climate? Jacobin magazine. URL (accessed 5.16.19).

Henriksson, L., 2013. Cars, Crisis, Climate Change and Class Struggle, in: Räthzel, N., Uzzell, D.L. (Eds.), Trade Unions in the Green Economy: Working for the Environment. Routledge, New York, NY.

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