GM now says it will support union at new battery factories

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — General Motors Co. and LG Energy Solution on Tuesday expressed support for unions and recognized the workers' rights to unionize the companies' joint venture Ultium Cells LLC battery plants. 

In the past, GM and LG, through Ultium Cells, remained neutral on the topic, saying it would be up to the workforce at the plants they're building in Ohio and Tennessee to decide if they want union representation.

Early conceptual rendering of Ultium Cells LLC battery cell manufacturing facility in Spring Hill, Tennessee. The approximately 2.8 million-square-foot facility is scheduled to open in late 2023. Actual facility may not be constructed as shown.

In an updated statement, they said: "Both GM and Ultium Cells LLC respect workers’ right to unionize and the efforts of the UAW to organize battery cell manufacturing workers in Ohio and Tennessee at our joint venture sites. When fully operational, these American battery facilities will employ more than 2,300 workers. We believe the UAW, given their historic and constructive relationship in the automotive industry, would be well positioned to represent the workforce."

The United Auto Workers, which represents about 50,000 GM employees, has pressured GM and Ultium to ensure those plants have a union workforce. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has been pushing for union jobs to come out of the electric vehicle transition.

"We in the UAW look forward to starting discussions with General Motors regarding their joint venture to produce batteries in Ohio and Tennessee so workers will have a voice at the table in order to create good-paying union jobs and benefits,"  UAW Vice President Terry Dittes said in a statement Tuesday.

GM has aggressive EV transition plans, including a goal of selling 1 million EVs by mid-decade and having 30 models introduced globally by the same time. The Tuesday statement further added: "As we deliver on our plans to create an all-electric future, GM will build on a long history of supporting unions to promote safety, quality, training, and well-paying jobs for American workers."

To make its EV goals a reality, GM will need battery cells and lots of them. That's why the automaker and LG are investing billions to build the two battery cell manufacturing plants. 

The $15-to-$17-an-hour wage expected at the joint venture plants would be lower than what GM pays its auto assembly workers. By the end of the four-year UAW/GM 2019 contract, hourly GM workers will make $32.32 an hour.

Marick Masters, a professor of business and the former director of labor studies at Wayne State University, said Tuesday the statement from the companies "reflects a commitment to support, at least philosophically, the representation of the new Ultium Cells workforce by the UAW."

But it's still unclear "whether Ultium might agree to take other steps to facilitate organizing, such as recognizing the union if a majority of members of the prospective bargaining unit sign cards authorizing UAW representation," he said.

"It will be important for the UAW to establish majority status, especially if it wants to avoid the prospect of a dissident group of workers that might wish to remain union-free," Masters said. "The landscape here is ripe for intense efforts both to support union organizing and to oppose it.  A variety of outside groups may chose to get involved to push their point of view."

Twitter: @bykaleahall