GM battery plant workers vote to unionize, a key win for labor as industry shifts to EVs

GM battery plant workers vote to unionize, a key win for labor as industry shifts to EVs

Speaking in front of a backdrop of American-made vehicles and a United Auto Workers (UAW) sign, Democratic U.S. presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about new proposals to protect U.S. jobs during a campaign stop in Warren, Michigan, U.S., September 9, 2020.

Leah Millis | Reuters

DETROIT — Workers at a General Motors joint venture battery plant in northeast Ohio overwhelmingly voted in favor of representation with the United Auto Workers, the union said early Friday.

The vote was being closely watched as such battery plants are viewed as crucial for automakers to transition from traditional vehicles with internal combustion engines to all-electric cars and trucks. Several other multi-billion dollar plants from GM and other automakers are under construction in the U.S.

The UAW reports roughly 98% of votes cast were in favor for the union. The count was 710 votes in support of UAW representation; 16 against; and one was void. The National Labor Relations Board, which was overseeing the election, did not immediately respond for comment.

Buoyed by a national labor movement and the Biden administration’s pro-union comments, labor and industry experts largely expected workers at the Warren, Ohio, plant of Ultium Cells LLC – a joint venture between GM and LG Energy Solution — to vote in support of the UAW’s representation.

“Our entire union welcomes our latest members from Ultium,” UAW President Ray Curry said in a release. “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 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.

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

Under NLRB rules, both sides have five business days to submit objections to challenge the results.

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

Barra on Thursday said if the Ohio plant voted in favor of organizing, she would like to reach a deal with the union “as soon as possible.”

“My view on when do you want to get a labor agreement done is as soon as possible,” Barra said during an Automotive Press Association meeting in Detroit. “It’s one of those things that usually doesn’t get better with time.”

Reaching a deal could be more contentious than the organizing vote. 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.

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.

How to transition traditional auto workers into new jobs for EVs has been a major concern for the UAW for several years. Ford CEO Jim Farley last month said the company expected electric vehicles to require 40% less workers than conventional cars and trucks.