Union wins election in first at Detroit-owned electric vehicle battery plant

Workers at a US plant making electric vehicle batteries have voted to unionise, a victory for one of the country’s most high-profile labour groups as the car industry shifts away from combustion engines.

At a north-east Ohio factory, 710 workers cast ballots in an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board asking for the United Auto Workers to represent them. Sixteen voted against union representation.

The factory is owned by Ultium Cells, a joint venture between General Motors and South Korean group LG Chem located near the US carmaker’s former Lordstown assembly plant.

“As the auto industry transitions to electric vehicles, new workers entering the auto sector at plants like Ultium are thinking about their value,” said UAW president Ray Curry. “This vote shows that they want to be part of maintaining the high standards and wages that UAW members have built in the auto industry.”

Ultium said it would “respect the decision of our Ohio workforce” and looked forward to “a positive working relationship with the UAW”.

The election — the first at a battery plant partly owned by one of the Detroit carmakers — tested whether the UAW could win support among workers making EVs and their parts. While only a fraction of vehicles sold in the US today are electric, they are the industry’s unquestioned future.

The UAW has so far been shut out of representing workers at EV leader Tesla, as well as most suppliers for the sector, raising the question of whether tomorrow’s jobs in US car manufacturing will deliver the same pay and benefits as during the 20th century.

US president Joe Biden has promised to create millions of “good-paying union jobs” in the transition to clean energy, but the lack of incentives tying union jobs to subsidies and the announcement of several high-profile EV and battery plants in the more anti-union US south-east have cast doubt on his goals.

The Ultium election was “a milestone event” showing the UAW can organise the part of the industry with long-term growth potential, said Marick Masters, a professor of business at Wayne State University in Detroit.

“This is an opportunity that the UAW wants to replicate and exploit to the greatest extent possible,” Masters said. “It doesn’t want to waste any time in signalling that it is interested in organising the battery industry wall-to-wall.”

Column chart of  showing US electric vehicle and battery workforce set to soar

GM’s chief executive Mary Barra, the daughter of a tool-and-die maker, said on Thursday that she supported unionising the factory, but “we’ve got to be competitive. We don’t have a right to exist.”

The victory in Ohio comes as Curry faces a runoff election in January for control of the UAW. A reform slate of candidates is challenging his leadership after a multiyear federal corruption investigation of the union led to more than a dozen criminal convictions. A Washington anti-union group publicised the scandal on two billboards near the plant in advance of the election.

The transition to electric vehicles is expected to shrink the size of the automotive workforce because EVs require fewer components than cars and trucks powered by petrol or diesel. Ford’s chief executive Jim Farley said last month that EV production would take 40 per cent less labour.

Still, the electric portion of the industry is adding jobs at a faster rate. According to the US Department of Energy, there are nearly 2mn jobs related to the production or repair of vehicles with traditional engines, compared with 106,000 related to EVs. But combustion engine jobs grew 8 per cent from 2020 to 2021, compared with 26 per cent for electric vehicle jobs.

Tom Taylor, an analyst at the advisory firm Atlas Public Policy, said that as EV production expands, “we are watching closely to see what effects, if any, a union vote in Ohio will have on this growing industry”.

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