Ohio electric battery plant workers vote to unionize

Ohio electric battery plant workers vote to unionize

In an early test of President Biden’s promise that the transition to electric vehicles will create well-paying union jobs, workers at a battery plant in eastern Ohio have voted to join the United Automobile Workers union. .

The result at the plant, owned by General Motors and South Korean automaker LG Energy Solution, appears to create the first formal union at a major US factory making electric cars, trucks or battery cells that isn’t owned entirely to one of the big three car manufacturers. The result, according to a union statement on Friday morning, after two days of voting, was 710 to 16.

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

While existing plants owned by the three former U.S. automakers have maintained a union presence as they shifted production to electric vehicles, the union must start from scratch at plants like the one in Ohio and joint ventures across which Ford is building battery factories in the South. . Other electric vehicle companies, like Tesla, Rivian and Lucid, are also non-unionized.

The autoworkers union has long been concerned about the transition to electric vehicles, first noting in a 2018 research paper that electric vehicles require about 30% less labor to operate. products than internal combustion vehicles. The document also pointed out that the United States lags far behind Asian and European countries in establishing an electric vehicle supply chain.

A report last year from the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, estimated that the transition to electric vehicles could cost at least 75,000 jobs in the US auto industry by 2030 if the government doesn’t. provided no additional subsidies for domestic production, but could create 150,000 jobs. if these grants were forthcoming.

An ambitious climate and health care bill signed by Mr Biden in August provided tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to industry, increasing the likelihood of auto jobs being created rather than lost.

But while Congress included some incentives for union-wide wages in the construction of new factories, it ultimately removed pieces of legislation that would have helped ensure union job creation, such as a 4-year incentive. $500 for vehicles assembled in a unionized plant in the United States.

Josh Bivens, author of the Economic Policy Institute report, said in an interview that he was pleasantly surprised that the administration had succeeded in passing 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 for these people to be unionized or even paid,” Bivens said.

Under the union’s contract with the Big Three automakers, base production veterans earn about $32 an hour, though new hires start at a significantly lower wage and work their way up to that amount over several years. .

In contrast, companies that manufacture electric vehicles or their components typically pay workers hourly wages between 12 and 25 years.

The union campaign at the Ohio plant, known as Ultium Cells, represents one of the easiest tests UAW organizers will face at an electric vehicle plant in years to come. The plant is in Warren, less than a mile or two from a unionized General Motors facility in Lordstown that operated for decades before the company shut it down and then sold it in 2019, familiarizing residents premises with the benefits of union membership.

And while Ultium didn’t agree to a so-called card-checking process that could have circumvented a union election, it also didn’t wage an anti-union campaign aimed at dissuading workers from unionizing, according to a gate. -word of the UAW. Mary T. Barra, the chief executive of General Motors, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television last week that the company was “very supportive” of unionizing the plant.

It’s less clear how successful the union will be in organizing other new electric vehicle factories, such as an Ultium factory being built in Tennessee, or three factories jointly built by Ford Motor and South Korean battery maker SK. Innovation in Kentucky and Tennessee, where the political culture is less welcoming to unions. Batteries, 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 can be even more difficult at plants owned solely by foreign manufacturers, such as an SK battery plant in Georgia or a huge plant that Hyundai is building in the state. The union has struggled for decades to organize the 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 make battery cells, said he now earns about $16.50 an hour, a pay cut of about $8 from working in a bag factory in China. plastic. He said the Ultium job appealed to him because the factory was much closer to his home than his previous job was.

An Ultium spokeswoman said the hourly pay for base workers ranges from $15 to $22 depending on experience and skills, and the company pays a quarterly bonus and offers benefits from the start of the job. ‘use.

Mr. Giovannone said that while the health care benefits were “phenomenal,” he wished the 401(k) match was more generous. He also said workers in his department frequently had to handle harsh chemicals without enough information from the company to ensure they were doing so safely.

The lack of specific chemical guidelines “is a big concern at the plant”, he said, adding that supervisors had not been very responsive when he and his colleagues pushed 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 maintaining extremely low humidity levels around certain components, said he had also taken a major pay cut to work there. He now earns $29 an hour, up from around $42, but he said the job also cut his commute significantly.

He agreed the health benefits were important, but shared Mr Giovannone’s concerns about safety. Mr Surgenavic said that when workers raise questions about safety rules, “it feels like it falls on deaf ears”. He cited concerns about having to change the air filter on a machine in a room with toxic materials.

Ultium’s spokeswoman said signs were posted throughout the plant with QR codes linking to safety information, and paper documents were also available. She said the company has specific safety standards for issues such as respiratory protection and chemical control and encourages all workers to report concerns.

The union campaign at Ultium unfolded against the backdrop of a recent UAW election in which Reform candidates defeated several longtime leadership caucus members, citing endemic corruption within the union and members’ frustrations with limited improvements to their contracts over the past decade.

In an interview, Shawn Fain, who faces incumbent Chairman Mr Curry in a run-off election, said the union’s relative lack of progress in organizing electric vehicle factories reflected years of complacency with the union leadership.

Fain said the Big Three automakers have pursued electric vehicle joint ventures with foreign companies to make it harder for workers to organize. “The whole system is set up to bypass the UAW and any type of relationship with current members and employees,” he said. “At the first sign of this, our leaders should have gone to war.”

General Motors said it relies on joint ventures to bring expertise that complements its existing battery technology and to help meet the projects’ huge capital needs. The UAW did not respond to a request for comment.

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