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GM Battery Plant Workers to Vote on Union Representation in Labor Test for the EV Industry

Michael Wayland / CNBC
  • The United Auto Workers union will for the first time this week attempt to organize a major electric vehicle battery plant for a Detroit automaker.
  • The organizing vote of Ultium Cells LLC — a joint venture between General Motors and LG Energy Solution — could potentially set a precedent for similar multibillion-dollar facilities to come.
  • The organizing vote is set for Wednesday and Thursday. Roughly 900 workers will be eligible to vote.

DETROIT — The United Auto Workers union will for the first time this week attempt to organize a major electric vehicle battery plant for a Detroit automaker, potentially setting a precedent for similar multibillion-dollar facilities to come.

Buoyed by a national labor movement and the Biden administration's pro-union comments, labor and industry experts largely expect workers at an Ohio plant of Ultium Cells LLC – a joint venture between General Motors and LG Energy Solution — to vote in support of the UAW's representation. A loss would be a major setback for the union and its organizing efforts.

"If they can show that the workers there trust the union, then other battery plants may have more pressure to follow suit," said Art Wheaton, a labor professor at the Worker Institute at Cornell University.

The organizing vote is set for Wednesday and Thursday. Roughly 900 workers will be eligible to vote.

The UAW's push into the battery plants comes amid a large labor movement that has included U.S. corporations like Amazon and Apple to Starbucks to Chipotle. Most recently, Delta Air Lines and its pilots' union last week reached a preliminary agreement for raises topping 30% over four years — a milestone deal that could sharply drive up aviators' pay across the industry.

Joint venture battery facilities are viewed as crucial for the UAW to grow and add members, as automakers such as GM transition to electric vehicles, which require less traditional labor and parts than cars with internal combustion engines.

The Ultium plant in Ohio, which started production in August, is the first of at least four U.S. battery facilities for the GM-LG joint venture. The plants are expected to employ thousands of workers in the coming years. Ford Motor, Stellantis and other automakers have announced similar plants, which would each have to be organized separately in addition to other Ultium plants.

The plant for Ultium Cells LLC - a joint venture between GM and LG Energy Solution - started production of battery cells in Warren, Ohio in August 2022.
Ultium
The plant for Ultium Cells LLC - a joint venture between GM and LG Energy Solution - started production of battery cells in Warren, Ohio in August 2022.

The organizing vote comes after Ultium declined to recognize the union through an expediated organizing process called a "card check," despite comments from GM CEO Mary Barra expressing support for the right for employees to unionize.

The UAW needs a simple majority of voters, not the total number of employees, to support the union in order to organize the plant, according to the National Labor Relations Board, which is overseeing the process. The NLRB expects to have voting finalized by lat Thursday or early Friday.

Under NLRB rules, both sides have five business days to submit objections to challenge the results. Following that period, the sides can begin talks, which is where experts expect things to turn contentious.

Barra and other executives have said hourly pay for factory workers at the battery plants should be closer to that of auto supplier workers — about $20 or less — rather than traditional assembly line jobs that top out at more than $30 an hour. Ultium said hourly workers currently make between $16 and $22 an hour with full benefits, incentives and tuition assistance.

"I'm on record as saying we support those plants getting unionized as we go forward," Barra told investors last month. "But we also have to make sure we're competitive."

U.S. President Joe Biden walks with Ford Motor Company Executive Chair William Clay Ford Jr. and Ray Curry, President of the United Autoworkers, during a visit to the Detroit Auto Show, to highlight electric vehicle manufacturing in America, in Detroit, Michigan, September 14, 2022.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
U.S. President Joe Biden walks with Ford Motor Company Executive Chair William Clay Ford Jr. and Ray Curry, President of the United Autoworkers, during a visit to the Detroit Auto Show, to highlight electric vehicle manufacturing in America, in Detroit, Michigan, September 14, 2022.

How to transition traditional auto workers into new jobs for EVs has been a major concern for the UAW for several years. A 2018 study by the union found that mass adoption of EVs could cost the UAW 35,000 jobs, however the union has said that number could be less now.

"It's a very critical time for the UAW," the organization's president, Ray Curry, told CNBC earlier this year. "This transformation piece is about our future. It's about 86-plus years of long-standing history."

The UAW's total membership of more than 400,000 has grown during the past decade as it diversified its membership outside of automotive to areas such as higher education and gaming. But it remains far below its peak of 1.5 million in the late 1970s.

Ford CEO Jim Farley last month said the company expected electric vehicles to require 40% less workers than conventional cars and trucks.

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