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UAW’s EV battery plant win signals success ahead in organizing push


The United Auto Workers’ success this week in organizing its first joint-venture battery plant owned by a Detroit Three automaker will aid the union in its fight to organize other similar plants and bolster its position in the changing industry, experts say.

Workers at the General Motors Co. and LG Energy Solution joint-venture Ultium Cells LLC plant in Warren, Ohio, this week overwhelmingly voted in favor of UAW representation, with 710 voting for the union and 16 voting against it. The plant is one of four U.S. facilities the companies are planning to open. Production launched first at the Warren facility this past summer.

The National Labor Relations Board, which oversaw the election, confirmed the vote tally favoring the union on Friday. Both parties have five business days to file objections. If no objections are filed, the results will be certified and bargaining can commence.

“Our entire union welcomes our latest members from Ultium,” UAW President Ray Curry said in a statement.  “As the auto industry transitions to electric vehicles, new workers entering the auto sector at plants like Ultium are thinking about their value and worth.  This vote shows that they want to be a part of maintaining the high standards and wages that UAW members have built in the auto industry.”

The Warren Ultium facility is the first of several battery plants the UAW will look to organize as the Detroit automakers progress with their EV plans. The organization efforts come less than a year before the UAW starts national contract talks with the automakers, which are likely to focus on preserving union jobs in the move to EVs. Organizing the battery plants owned by GM, Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV is critical for the UAW, union officials and industry analysts say, because these jobs will one day take the place of union-backed jobs for internal combustion engine production.

“The successful organizing of the new wave of electric battery manufacturing is essential to the UAW’s future position,” said Marick Masters, a professor at Wayne State University’s Mike Ilitch School of Business, in a statement.

The UAW’s challenge now will be “to meld the representation of these workers into the overall fabric of the auto negotiations so as (to) protect jobs and wages,” Masters said. “These workers should become ambassadors for the UAW’s efforts to replicate this success in other facilities in the offing and in the facilities of the nonunion electrical vehicle manufacturers such as Rivian and Tesla.”

Ultium spokesperson Brooke Waid said in a Friday statement the company respects “the decision of our Ohio workforce supporting representation by the UAW. We look forward to a positive working relationship with the UAW.”

What workers want

The Ultium plant neighbors the former GM Lordstown Assembly plant, where for more than 50 years UAW-represented workers made GM products until the plant closed in 2019. The closure of the Mahoning Valley region’s top employer was a devastating blow to the area, but the union support didn’t seem to waiver. The vote for union representation wasn’t surprising to experts and former union leaders from Lordstown’s UAW Local 1112 given the union’s long-lasting presence here and the strengthening national labor movement.

“This is a new generation coming alive with the UAW in this area,” said Anthony Russo, a production associate at the Ultium plant who voted in favor of the union. “We’re seeing it come back in a great way. And I think we’re going to take over and lead into the future … Ultium will be the new GM Lordstown.”

Russo, 20, grew up in Lordstown, the neighboring village to Warren, and dreamed of one day working at the local GM plant where his friends and family, including his late mother, also worked.

“Unfortunately, they closed the plant a year before graduation for me, so Ultium was seen as my opportunity to get in the company and bring the UAW in,” Russo said.

Russo actually sought out the union before he started working at Ultium since his friends working there were informing him of the situation: low wages, health and safety issues and disrespect from management. Now in the plant, he’s also noticed these issues.

Production associates make $16.50 per hour, Russo says, which is about half of what GM employees covered by the national UAW contract make (GM workers will make $32.32 per hour by next September). Russo has also experienced “egregious health and safety violations, blatant disrespect by management and front office staff.”

“My biggest concern is with safety of this plant,” he said. “We have had too many incidents to ignore, which the company chooses to do, and we don’t.”

Judi Viets, 60, and Megan Adams, 30, work in cell disposal at the plant. They also stressed the need for better health and safety protocols and voted for UAW representation hoping to see those changes.

In the area where Viets and Adams work, they have to be careful to avoid contact with the electrolyte in the battery. It took one month to get an eye-washing station, they said, and they are still waiting for a hand-washing station.

“There was no eye-wash station, which they did get us which we were happy for just in case,” Viets said. “We do wear quite a bit of PPE back there. But again, we have to literally run across the plant if we would get electrolyte on us.”

Both stressed that they do “love Ultium.”

“We just want some changes that are for our safety,” Viets said. “I love it here but let’s change. Let’s bring some good here for everybody.”

Voting yes in favor of the UAW was a “no brainer” for Ultium production associate Johnny Pence, 27. He’s the grandson of the legendary former Local 1112 shop chairman Al Alli, an innovative and sometimes controversial bargainer who workers saw as an ally.

“Coming from a long line of union workers in my family, I’ve witnessed first hand the benefits a union can offer someone especially the UAW,” Pence said in a statement. “You kind of become a family and have peace of mind knowing someone has your back.”

For former UAW Local 1112 Shop Chairman Dan Morgan, who worked for years to try and save GM Lordstown from closing, this moment is bittersweet. He’s excited that workers will have UAW representation but also wonders why GM and the UAW “walked away from such a great workforce” at GM Lordstown. Morgan is now at GM’s Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he’s still in union leadership as a district shop committeeman for the Local 2164.

“I am very happy for the workers because their wages, benefits and working conditions will be much improved here in the near future,” Morgan said in a statement.

UAW Local 1112 survived GM Lordstown’s closure even though its thousands of members transferred to plants in Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan, Texas, Indiana and other states.

Tim O’Hara, former 1112 president who worked at the plant for 41 years, said Friday’s win for the UAW “will help Local 1112 grow again, and that brings a smile to my face on this Victory Friday.”

The UAW’s landslide victory here “sets a blueprint for all the future Big 3 battery plants that are being built in Tennessee, Kentucky and other states,” O’Hara added. “These Ultium workers will produce the power for all future GM electric vehicles and they deserve to be well compensated.”

The effort to organize

The UAW had been trying to organize the Ohio Ultium plant all year. The union wanted to organize with a card-check agreement but the company pushed back on using that method. Ultium instead sought to have an election certified by the National Labor Relations Board for the union to be recognized.

In October, the union filed to have an election on behalf of about 900 workers. At the time, UAW president Curry said while most Ultium workers had signed cards to authorize UAW representation, Ultium declined to recognize the UAW as the employees’ union.

The UAW will have three other Ultium battery plants to organize in the next few years. An Ultium Cells plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, will open late next year, and it just received a $275 million investment for expansion there. A third plant is under construction in Delta Township near Lansing and will open in 2024. GM and LG are considering a site in New Carlisle, Indiana, for the location of a fourth plant.

The success in Warren this week should pave a shorter path for the UAW to organize Ultium’s other plants, as well as the Ford and Stellantis battery plants, experts said.

“Once you get one plant it becomes easier to get to the next one,” said Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University’s ILR School. And the landslide win “shows that not only were the workers willing to vote for the UAW, they were excited to vote for the UAW.”

When the UAW negotiates the contract for Ultium workers, health and safety and higher wages are likely to be top priorities but Wheaton also expects the UAW to push for “dignity in the workplace and a voice in the workplace.”

GM CEO Mary Barra during an Automotive Press Association event in Detroit on Thursday ahead of the UAW representation vote at the Warren plant said she would want to see a labor agreement done “as soon as possible. Wherever and whatever it is around the world. Because it’s one of those things that usually doesn’t get better with time.”

She also said GM is “a company that has worked with unions around the world for many years. So you know, we’re welcoming of the union at the battery plant.”

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter:@bykaleahall



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