Workers at E.V. Battery Plant in Ohio Vote to Unionize
In an early test of President Biden’s promise that the transition to electric vehicles will create high-paying union jobs, employees at a battery plant in eastern Ohio have voted to join the United Automobile Workers union.
The outcome at the plant, owned by General Motors and the South Korean manufacturer LG Energy Solution, appears to create the first formal union at a U.S. electric car, truck or battery cell manufacturing plant not owned entirely by one of the Big Three automakers. The result, according to a union statement early Friday, after two days of balloting, was 710 to 16.
“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,” said Ray Curry, the U.A.W. president, in the statement. “This vote shows that they want to be a part of maintaining the high standards and wages that U.A.W. members have built in the auto industry.”
While existing plants owned by the three legacy U.S. automakers have maintained a union presence as they have shifted production to electric vehicles, the union must start from scratch at plants like the one in Ohio and joint ventures through which Ford is building battery factories in the South. Other electric vehicle companies, like Tesla, Rivian and Lucid, are also not unionized.
The autoworkers union has long worried about the transition to electric vehicles, first noting in a 2018 research paper that electric vehicles require about 30 percent less labor to produce than internal combustion vehicles. The paper also pointed out that the United States was falling far behind Asian and European countries in establishing an electric vehicle supply chain.
A report last year by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, estimated that the transition to electric vehicles could cost at least 75,000 U.S. auto industry jobs by 2030 if the government did not provide additional subsidies for domestic production, but could create 150,000 jobs if those subsidies were forthcoming.
An ambitious climate and health care bill signed by Mr. Biden in August provided tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for the industry, raising the probability that auto industry jobs will be created rather than lost.
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But while Congress included certain incentives for union-scale wages in the construction of new plants, it ultimately removed elements of the legislation that would have helped ensure the creation of union jobs, such as a $4,500 incentive for vehicles assembled at a unionized facility in the United States.
Josh Bivens, an author of the Economic Policy Institute report, said in an interview that he was pleasantly surprised that the administration managed to pass strong incentives for domestic production of electric vehicles. But whether the incentives will lead to good jobs, he added, is an open question.
“There’s no real explicit subsidy or incentive to make these unionized or even high-wage,” Mr. Bivens said.
Under the union’s contract with the Big Three automakers, veteran rank-and-file production workers make about $32 per hour, though new hires start at a substantially lower wage and work their way up to that amount over several years.
By contrast, companies that make electric vehicles or their components typically pay workers hourly wages in the midteens to the mid-20s.
The union campaign at the Ohio plant, known as Ultium Cells, represents one of the easier tests facing U.A.W. organizers at an electric vehicle facility in the coming years. The plant is in Warren, within a mile or two of a unionized General Motors facility in Lordstown that operated for decades before the company idled it and then sold it in 2019, making local residents familiar with the benefits of union membership.
And while Ultium did not agree to a so-called card check process that could have bypassed a union election, it also did not wage an anti-union campaign seeking to dissuade workers from unionizing, according to a U.A.W. spokeswoman. Mary T. Barra, the General Motors chief executive, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television last week that the company was “very supportive” of the plant’s unionization.
It is less clear how successful the union will be at organizing other new electric vehicle plants, such as an Ultium facility being built in Tennessee, or three factories being built jointly by Ford Motor and the South Korean battery maker SK Innovation in Kentucky and Tennessee, where the political culture is less hospitable to unions. Battery packs, which can cost around $15,000, are by far the most expensive component of an electric vehicle powertrain, the key parts and systems that power a car.
The task may be even taller at plants owned solely by foreign manufacturers, such as an SK battery plant in Georgia or a huge plant Hyundai is building in the state. The union has for decades struggled to organize so-called transplant facilities owned by foreign automakers in the South.
Workers at the Ultium plant in Ohio, which began production this year, cited pay and safety issues as key reasons for unionizing. Dominic Giovannone, who helps fabricate battery cells, said he was now making about $16.50 per hour — a roughly $8 pay cut from his job at a plastic bag factory. He said the Ultium job attracted him because the plant was far closer to his home than his previous job had been.
An Ultium spokeswoman said that hourly pay for rank-and-file workers ranges from $15 to $22 depending on experience and skills, and that the company pays a quarterly bonus and provides benefits as soon as employment begins.
Mr. Giovannone said that while the health care benefits were “phenomenal,” he wished the 401(k) match were more generous. He also said that workers in his department were frequently required to handle harsh chemicals without enough information from the company to ensure that they do so safely.
The lack of specific guidance on chemicals “is a big concern in the plant,” he said, adding that supervisors had not been very responsive when he and his co-workers prodded them on the issue.
Ethan Surgenavic, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning specialist at the plant, whose department is responsible for indoor conditions such as keeping humidity extremely low around certain components, said that he too had taken a large pay cut to work there. He now makes $29 per hour, from about $42, but he said the job also substantially reduced his commute.
He agreed that the health benefits were strong but shared Mr. Giovannone’s concerns about safety. Mr. Surgenavic said that when workers raise questions about safety rules, “it feels like it lands on deaf ears.” He cited worries about having to change a machine’s air filter in a room that contains toxic material.
The Ultium spokeswoman said that signs were posted throughout the plant with QR codes linking to safety information, and that paper handouts were also available. She said that the company had specific safety standards for issues like respiratory protection and chemical control and that it encouraged all workers to report concerns.
The union campaign at Ultium took place against the backdrop of a recent U.A.W. election in which reformist candidates defeated several members of the longtime leadership caucus, citing rampant corruption within the union and members’ frustrations with limited improvements in their contracts over the past decade.
In an interview, Shawn Fain, who fill face the incumbent president, Mr. Curry, in a runoff election, said the union’s relative lack of progress in organizing electric vehicle plants reflected years of complacency with the union’s leadership.
Mr. Fain said the Big Three automakers pursued electric vehicle joint ventures with foreign companies to make it harder for workers there to unionize. “The whole system is put together to circumvent the U.A.W. and any type of relationships with current members and employees,” he said. “At the first sign of that, our leadership should have went to war.”
General Motors said it relied on joint ventures to bring in expertise that complements its existing battery technology and to help meet the projects’ enormous capital requirements. The U.A.W. did not respond to a request for comment.