UAW pushes to represent battery plant workers in Ohio

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

The United Auto Workers said it's moving forward with attempts to unionize a joint-venture battery cell plant after pushback from Ultium Cells LLC, a company General Motors Co. and partner LG Energy Solution own. 

UAW-GM leadership attempted to establish a card-check agreement with Ultium Cells that would give the union access to the facility to collect cards as a way to organize the plant, UAW Vice President Terry Dittes told local leaders in a letter Tuesday obtained by The Detroit News.

"If the majority is established by an independent third party, the union would be recognized and negotiations would commence," Dittes said. "This process has been agreed to by many employers for a smooth and peaceful recognition of the UAW. Ultium has flat out rejected those simple, basic features of a card check recognition we proposed."

Ultium Cells employees are not covered by the national GM/UAW national contract.

Rejecting the union's ability to collect cards from employees to confirm union representation complicates the effort to unionize the plant. Another path would be a vote by employees to decide if they want union representation. The vote would be monitored by the National Labor Relations Board. 

"The bottom line is that if you go with the secret ballot election route, it's more difficult for the union to win recognition," said Marick Masters, a professor at Wayne State University's Mike Ilitch School of Business.

Ultium representative Brooke Waid said in a statement: "The UAW has expressed interest in representing a portion of the Ultium Cells workforce and we have had initial discussions around a neutrality agreement that could enable a card check process at our facility in Warren, Ohio. We are, and always have been, supportive of the process that allows our people to determine their own representation status, which is a matter of personal choice."

The Ultium plant in Warren, Ohio, near Lordstown, will open for production in August.

Dittes added the UAW just started its organizing drive at the Warren Ultium plant, one of four plants GM and LG are planning to build together in the United States for battery cell manufacturing. Lordstown is home to the now shuttered former GM Lordstown Assembly plant that had UAW representation for the more than 50 years it made GM products.

Two other Ultium sites will be located in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and in Delta Township near Lansing. Both Spring Hill and Delta Township are home to GM plants with UAW representation. The location of the fourth Ultium battery plant hasn't been released.

"We will represent the employees there (in Warren) and at all future Ultium sites currently under construction," Dittes said. 

The UAW, which represents about 50,000 GM employees, has pressured GM and Ultium to ensure the battery plants have a union workforce.

A year ago this month, GM expressed support for the UAW to unionize at its Ultium Cells battery plants after first remaining neutral on the topic. 

Their statement at the time 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."