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Autoworkers vote to unionize EV factory in historic win for labor movement

The election at the plant, owned by GM and LG Energy Solution, is a major test for the labor movement in the fight against climate change

President Biden visits a GM electric-vehicle production line with UAW President Ray Curry and General Motors CEO Mary Barra in Detroit in 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Workers at an Ohio plant that makes batteries for General Motors voted overwhelmingly to unionize the first factory originally built for electric vehicles and components, federal workforce officials said Friday, jump-starting the labor movement in the fast-growing EV industry and the fight against climate change.

Employees at Ultium Cells, a joint venture of GM and LG Energy Solution in Warren, Ohio, voted 710 to 16 to join the UAW, according to the National Labor Relations Board. That gives the powerful union a foothold in the new wave of EV component and assembly plants unleashed by historic clean-energy investments pushed by the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress.

Union officials have been worried about the future of the labor movement as automakers sprint toward zero-emission vehicles. Much of that work is slated for new facilities in the South — rather than the auto sector’s traditional geographic center in the industrial Midwest — where companies have eyed tax incentives dangled by governors and lower labor costs often attributable to less hospitable organizing environments.

Those facilities also need fewer workers, because EVs generally require far fewer parts than vehicles with internal-combustion engines. That translates to 40 percent fewer workers, according to Ford chief executive Jim Farley.

Labor officials have said that could spell an existential threat to autoworkers and their union. A UAW study in 2018 found that mass adoption of EVs endangered 35,000 jobs. Jobs in EV manufacturing pay $15 to $16 per hour, far less than the $30 hourly rates of Detroit autoworkers.

“If the companies that are being given huge subsidies to fight climate change from the federal government are using that money to pull jobs out of the industrial heartland and moving them somewhere else, it will be impossible to sustain the middle class and fight climate change,” said Damon Silvers, a visiting professor at University College London and the former policy director of the AFL-CIO.

“This is the thing that I think is missing in the environmental discourse about climate change,” Silvers added. “Fighting climate change is a political and economic fight and you’ve got to have the support of working people to win that fight.”

GM chief executive Mary Barra has said her company supports the unionization drive.

“We have a very productive relationship with our labor force. We work together on safety, which is fundamental, and quality,” she told Bloomberg News last month. “Obviously, the employees are going to be voting, but we are supportive.”

In a statement after the election, GM said it hoped Ultium and the UAW “can successfully establish a competitive and flexible labor agreement that helps ensure the future success of Ultium Cells’ business.”

President Biden congratulated the workers after the vote. He has repeatedly said he aspires to be “the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.” But his relationship with the labor movement has been tested in recent months as he attempted to broker a truce between rail workers and freight companies.

He ultimately pushed Congress to force a consortium of unions to accept an agreement and avert an impending strike, handing workers massive raises but no paid sick leave. Union leaders across industries howled at what many perceived to be Biden’s betrayal of the labor movement.

The union vote in Ohio this week could help repair that relationship and allow Biden and Democrats to further tout the accomplishments of their landmark Inflation Reduction Act, which provided $7,500 consumer tax credits for EV purchases.

“By rebuilding our infrastructure and our manufacturing of electric vehicles batteries and semiconductors, these jobs will bring our supply chains back home and tackle the climate crisis at the same time,” Biden said in a statement. “In my administration, American and union workers can and will lead the world in manufacturing once again.”

“Our entire union welcomes our latest members from Ultium,” UAW President Ray Curry said in a statement. “As the auto industry transitions to electric vehicles, new workers entering the auto sector at plants like Ultium are thinking about their value and worth. This vote shows that they want to be a part of maintaining the high standards and wages that UAW members have built in the auto industry.”

LG said it would accept the vote result. “LG Energy Solution respects Ultium Cells’ decision to give its workers freedom to choose union representation which complies with the National Labor Relations Act,” the company said.

Ultium spokeswoman Brooke Waid said Friday that the company “looks[s] forward to a positive working relationship with the UAW.”

The company declined to recognize UAW representation voluntarily over the summer, triggering a formal vote.

The union needed a simple majority of voters for victory. The plant has roughly 900 workers.

“If that plant is not a UAW plant, it is a symbol with a spotlight on it of the deterioration of the UAW’s grasp on autoworkers,” said Erik Gordon, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “If it is a UAW plant, it is a symbol of the UAW extending its power and relevance into EV battery plants, the future.”

It would also lay down a marker in northeast Ohio — particularly Warren and neighboring Lordstown — a historical heart of union country and a GM region, experts say.

“The culture in Lordstown [and] the workers there have been as pro-union, anti-company activist as any assembly plant in the country,” Gordon said.

The local union jousted with GM management for decades over pay and working conditions. A shift in American consumer preferences away from sedans — Lordstown’s bread and butter — to trucks and SUVs led GM to shutter the Lordstown plant in 2019. GM later sold the facility to Lordstown Motors, an EV start-up. Ultium broke ground on the Warren battery plant in May 2020.

GM has said it will sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035, posing a threat, along with other automakers, to Tesla’s dominance in the EV market. Although the luxury carmaker, owned by tech mogul Elon Musk, still claims 64 percent of the EV market share, according to Cox Automotive Group, steep investments from Hyundai and Ford have cut into its margin.

The Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle, with a sticker price of $25,600, was the third most popular EV in the quarter that ended Sept. 30, Cox reported, behind the Tesla Model Y and Tesla Model 3 — which start at $65,000 and $45,000, respectively.

Kelsey Ables contributed to this report.