GM Says It Supports UAW Efforts to Organize Ultium Plants

LORDSTOWN, Ohio – General Motors said Tuesday that the United Auto Workers union is “well positioned” to represent the workforce at Ultium Cells LLC’s new electric vehicle battery manufacturing plants under development here and in Spring Hill, Tenn.

Ultium, a joint venture between GM and Korea-based LG Energy Solution, is building a $2.3 billion factory near the automaker’s former Lordstown assembly complex. It plans to employ more than 1,100 workers once the plant is operating.

A sister plant of similar size and scope is planned for Spring Hill. Together, the plants are expected to employ about 2,300 workers.

“As we deliver on our plans to create an all-electric future, GM will build on a long history of supporting unions to promote safety, quality, training and well-paying jobs for American workers,” the statement said. “Both GM and Ultium Cells LLC respect workers’ right to unionize and the efforts of the UAW to organize battery cell manufacturing workers in Ohio and Tennessee at our joint venture sites.”

In recent weeks, top UAW officials have questioned whether GM’s joint venture was open to unionizing these plants, since they are not covered under the most recent collective bargaining agreement.

The UAW maintains that Detroit-based GM and crosstown rival Ford have a “moral obligation” to pay top union wages at joint-venture battery plants. Experts say the union’s future could be imperiled if it can’t represent workers at the plants and get a top UAW wage of about $31 per hour. Those jobs will replace work that will be lost at combustion-engine and transmission factories.

When the Lordstown plant was announced in 2019, GM CEO Mary Barra said worker pay would follow GM’s component-manufacturing strategy, where workers are paid less than top union wages. She said the plant would have to be cost-competitive.

Now it appears that the automaker is more receptive to union representation and won’t stand in the way of organizing either factory, said Tim O’Hara, former president of UAW Local 1112, which once represented workers at GM’s Lordstown complex.

“It’s good news,” he said. “It looks like GM will allow the UAW to go forward with an organizing drive and then let the workforce vote on it.”

O’Hara suspects there will probably be former members of 1112 looking to join the Ultium workforce.

“Obviously, we want whoever is hired there to get good benefits and pay,” he said. “This is the first step to getting to that point.” However, O’Hara said that it’s likely that wages would be lower at battery plants compared to traditional autoworker assembly jobs.

O’Hara resigned as Local 1112 president in August 2020 and now lives in Kentucky. GM shut the Lordstown plant down in March 2019, eliminating more than 1,500 jobs there. The plant was sold later that year to Lordstown Motors Corp.

“We believe the UAW, given their historic and constructive relationship in the automotive industry, would be well-positioned to represent the workforce,” GM said.

UAW Vice President Terry Dittes said in a statement that the union welcomes dialogue with Ultium.

“We in the UAW look forward to starting discussions with General Motors regarding their joint venture to produce batteries in Ohio and Tennessee, so workers will have a voice at the table in order to create good paying union jobs and benefits,” he said.

The statements come as Ultium hosts a recruiting event for those interested in working at its Lordstown plant on Wednesday.

“We are excited to deliver upon our commitment to creating new jobs in Northeast Ohio,” said Tom Gallagher, chief operating officer at Ultium. “As construction continues to progress at our Lordstown facility, we are eager to meet individuals who are interested in challenging and rewarding careers in battery cell manufacturing.”

The career fair will run from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Eastwood Mall Event Centre in Niles.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.