Journal Opinion: Ultium Takes Crucial ‘First Step’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The announcement, as this edition was going to press, that Ultium Cells and United Auto Workers Local 1112 had reached a tentative agreement for interim wage increases represents a tremendous “first step” for the Lordstown plant – and a great step forward for the Voltage Valley. 

Under the tentative deal, which workers were to vote on at press time, Ultium hourly workers would receive a 25% wage increase on average, retro-active to Dec. 23, 2022. Any current worker who has worked since then would receive payments of between $3,000 and $7,000 based on hours worked.

“This is just a first step,” Ultium said in its Aug. 24 statement announcing the deal. “We continue to bargain in good faith with the UAW to reach a comprehensive contract for our employees, including a final wage scale.”

Josh Ayers, UAW Local 1112 chairman, similarly described the deal as the first step toward a comprehensive collective bargaining agreement. “While an entire ‘first’ agreement is being negotiated, the committee is still hard at work in bargaining working conditions, health and safety, seniority rights, addressing other issues raised by the membership and future wage increases throughout the term of this agreement,” he said.

As readers know, the $2.3 billion Ultium Cells plant was constructed near the huge manufacturing complex once operated by General Motors, one of two partners in the Ultium joint-venture with Korea-based LG Energy Solution.

A half-century ago, GM’s Lordstown plant became the national symbol for labor-management strife, an impression that lasted for decades, threatening the future of the plant and the jobs of the thousands of workers employed at what would later become the Mahoning Valley’s largest employer.

At the time, 1972, the issues involved the speed of the assembly line and the assimilation of young workers into a tedious, repetitive workplace. Said a UAW official, “If you were 22 and had a job where you were treated like a machine and knew you had about 30 years to go, how would you feel?”

In the late 1990s, a collaborative relationship was forged between management and workers, leading to successful efforts to bring new vehicles to the plant. Still, in 2019, the demise of the small-car market forced GM to close the plant. 

Today the sprawling complex is owned by Foxconn, the world’s largest contract manufacturer, which is poised to roll out EVs, the Lordstown Motors Corp. bankruptcy notwithstanding. And the village of Lordstown is the nucleus of Voltage Valley, the core of efforts to build an EV ecosystem here.

The UAW wants Ultium Cells and nine other battery plants included in the UAW national contract with the Big 3 automakers. We don’t know how successful that tactic will be – or if tough negotiations will erupt in a strike. But we do know that securing competitive wages at the Ultium plant is vital to its sustainability – and to our Voltage Valley.