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Ultium Cells plant supplying General Motors BEVs using Ultium platform.

GM Battery Plant Could End UAW's Organizing Drought

The $2.3 billion Ultium Cells plant in Northeast Ohio is critical to GM’s battery-electric-vehicle offensive, which is in danger of falling behind schedule because the automaker cannot get enough batteries to power its growing fleet of BEVs.

The UAW is seeking to organize the 900 workers at the new Ultium Cells battery plant in Lordstown, OH, that is crucial to the future of both the union and General Motors.

The $2.3 billion plant in Northeast Ohio is a linchpin in  GM’s battery-electric-vehicle offensive. But that plan is in danger of falling behind schedule, because the automaker cannot get enough batteries to power its growing fleet of BEVs using cells from Ultium – including the GMC Hummer, Cadillac Lyriq (pictured, below) and soon the Chevrolet Silverado EV and Chevrolet Equinox EV.

A majority of Ultium workers have signed cards authorizing the UAW to represent them, union President Ray Curry says. The UAW has filed a petition with the Cleveland office of the National Labor Relations Board calling for an election establishing the union as the workers’ bargaining agent.

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“By refusing to recognize their majority will, Ultium – which is a joint venture between General Motors and LG Energy Solution – has decided to ignore democracy and delay the recognition process,” Curry says in a statement. “Make no mistake: Whether it is by card check or union election, these workers will be members of the UAW.”

According to the UAW, Ultium previously indicated a willingness to recognize the majority will of the workers based on authorization cards but has now backtracked.

GM spokesman Dan Flores says in an email: “Ultium Cells respects workers’ freedom to choose union representation and the efforts of the UAW to organize battery cell manufacturing workers at our Ohio manufacturing site. 

“Ultium Cells will comply with the National Labor Relations Act, which protects our employees’ right to freely decide unionization through a voluntary election conducted by the NLRB. Ultium Cells believes the right to a personal and private vote is important.”

John Russo, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor who also has taught at the University of Youngstown – 12 miles (19 km) southeast of Lordstown, says more than 90% of workers signed authorization cards.

Ultium Cells rejected the UAW’s request for voluntary recognition and said it would prefer a recognition election. So far there is no sign Ultium Cells and its management team, which includes several former GM employees, is preparing to run an anti-UAW campaign in the plant, Russo says.

However, the UAW contends the tug of war over representation at Ultium Cells has been going on for months. Production at the Lordstown plant (pictured, below) began in late August.

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The company participated in meetings and discussions with the UAW about a process for certifying the UAW’s majority status without going through an NLRB election, the union says.

“Despite the UAW engaging in good faith discussions, it is clear now that the company’s strategy was to delay and deny workers union representation for as long as possible,” says Region 2B Director Wayne Blanchard.  “The UAW filed the petition (with the NLRB) so workers can get on with forming their union without any further delay.”

Adds George Goranitis, an Ultium employee supporting the UAW: “We had hoped Ultium would have done the right thing so we can get on with the business of bargaining and addressing the serious health and safety issues in the plant.

“This decision by Ultium reminds every one of us why we need to form our union, as the company does not care about our interests. We are ready to win our election,” Goranitis says.

In 2017, anti-union campaigns derailed high-profile UAW organizing drives at Fuyao Glass America in Moraine in Southwest Ohio – which became the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, American Factory – and at the Nissan assembly plant in Canton, MS, where consultants successfully leveraged a corruption scandal at the UAW’s highest levels to stymie the union’s effort. In both cases, union organizers believed from the card checks a majority of workers supported joining the UAW.

The UAW’s organizing efforts at the Tesla plant in Fremont, CA, have been blocked by the company’s legal challenges. The case is pending in a federal appeals court in New Orleans.

With the effects of the corruption scandal still hanging over its head, the UAW – operating under the supervision of a court-appointed monitor – has concentrated on organizing workers at smaller plants.

All sides have a substantial stake in the outcome of the Ultium Cells vote in Northeastern Ohio, which has long been considered one of organized labor’s strongholds in the U.S.

During a conference call with investors, GM CEO Mary Barra admitted the automaker will miss its previously announced BEV production targets by at least six months. GM had said it expected to build 400,000 BEV units by the end of 2023 as it ramps up production at the Lordstown factory, which is built on part of the site once occupied by GM assembly and stamping plants.

The Lordstown assembly plant GM phased out in 2019 over the UAW’s objections is now occupied by BEV maker Lordstown Motors, which is having its own challenges ramping up production.

GM’s JV partner, LG Energy Solution, also is involved in building other battery plants, including at least two more with GM in Lansing, MI, and Spring Hill, TN.

Organizing battery plants is a priority for the UAW as employment in conventional engine and transmission plants is expected to decline sharply as the industry shifts to BEVs, internal studies by the union show.


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