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Stellantis CEO: 'We have zero problem with unions' at battery plants

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — The CEO of Stellantis NV says employees of its joint-venture electric-vehicle battery manufacturing plants will be unionized if they wish.

"That is very fine with us, very, very fine," Carlos Tavares said during a virtual video conference from the Detroit auto show. "Why? Because we need to discuss with somebody, so we are very fine with unions. We have zero problem with unions. We may disagree ... that's fine."

Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares

Organizing the battery plants is critical for members of unions like the United Auto Workers and Unifor in Canada as production of engines has an expiration date because of the move to zero-emission transportation. Electric vehicles have fewer parts and need fewer hands to assemble them.

So far, the UAW has faced obstacles in representing battery plants. UAW leaders have criticized General Motors Co. for not letting union representatives collect cards in plants owned by Ultium Cells LLC, its joint venture with LG Energy Solution. Workers last week at the Ultium plant in Warren, Ohio, voted to authorize a strike if need to push for union representation there.

Tavares' own comments come after members of UAW Local 1166, which represents employees at Stellantis' Kokomo Casting Plant in Indiana, went on strike for almost three days over a local contract. Workers demanded repairs to the facility's heating and air-conditioning system, paid uniforms and other workplace improvements. They ratified an agreement on Monday.

National contracts with both the UAW and Unifor are about a year away from their expiration date. The bargaining will mark the first for Stellantis, formed in the 2021 merger between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and French automaker Groupe PSA. FCA last year pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Labor Management Relations Act, subjecting it to a $30 million fine and three years of labor relations oversight by a court-appointed independent monitor, after three executives were found to have bribed UAW officials.

Stellantis has announced two battery plants in North America. One valued at $4.1 billion is under the name NextStar Energy with LG Energy Solution in Windsor, Ontario, creating 2,500 jobs. A second investment of $2.5 billion is with Samsung SDI in Kokomo, creating 1,400 jobs.

"Our company, Stellantis, from a management perspective of people is absolutely comfortable with unions anywhere in the world," Tavares said on Wednesday. "This is our stance, and we are absolutely comfortable to discuss in good faith on that approach. We believe in co-construction, which means we are building the future of the company in co-construction with our unions."

In contrast to competitors like Ford Motor Co., which is separating its company into the fossil fuel-powered Ford Blue and electrified Model E division, Tavares emphasized Stellantis will be "one co" making the transition.

Mark Stewart, chief operating officer in North America, echoed those remarks, saying the goal is that "no one is left behind." He recognized assembling EVs requires fewer people than building vehicles with internal combustion engine powertrains. Tavares has said Stellantis is looking to increase the percentage of the vehicle the automaker owns. Stewart said he is looking at where it makes sense to insource components, though he declined to specify what those are.

"That's why I'm looking to explore all areas across the supply chain," he said, "of what makes sense to do in the future so that we can conserve as many jobs."

He pointed to converting a transmission plant into an engine plant for plug-in hybrids as an example of the work already underway as well as new skilled labor positions in the 2019 UAW contract to create a pipeline with apprentices for jobs needed in EV plants. The company also has partnered with universities, including Oakland University and Ohio State University, to train workers. It also is working with Inc. on training software engineers.

"We are one co and part of the one co is making sure we're given the skillsets and the tools to all of our people for the jobs of tomorrow," Stewart said. "For folks in classic powertrain, they want to get into electrification, they want to get into software to do different modules so that as that comes and gets to critical mass, those folks can transition there."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble