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 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
“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 AmazonAppleStarbucksChipotleDelta Air Linesfor 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 MotorStellantis
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 late-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 negotiations, 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.”
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 longstanding history.”
The UAW’s total membership of more than 400,000 has grown during the last 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 in building such cars and trucks.