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GM battery plant employees to vote for UAW representation in December

The first of what are expected to be several representation elections for the United Auto Workers at a Detroit Three battery plant will take place next month.

An election to unionize the first General Motors Co. and LG Energy Solution joint-venture battery cell manufacturing plant in operation in Warren, Ohio, is scheduled for Dec. 7 and Dec. 8, according to a National Labor Relations Board filing made this week.

The plant is one of at least four that the GM and LG joint venture, operating as Ultium Cells LLC, is opening in the United States. Detroit automakers Stellantis NV and Ford Motor Co. also are planning battery plants that the UAW is expected to try to organize as it claims its place in the transition to electric vehicles. The organization effort in Warren comes less than a year before the Detroit Three and the UAW begin negotiations for a new contract that will partially focus on the fate of non-electric vehicle jobs.

"This is the most strategic issue facing the UAW today: how to make the transition from the internal combustion engine production to the electric vehicle production," said Tom Kochan, a labor studies professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. "The drivetrain engine production was quite labor intensive, and particularly among production workers. Those jobs will change dramatically in the electric vehicle production."

The Ultium plant in Warren is the first of four plants to start making battery cells for GM EVs. Two other plants, in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and in Delta Township near Lansing, are under construction. GM and LG are looking at New Carlisle, Indiana, as the location for their fourth battery plant in the U.S.

"It's absolutely essential for the UAW to gain representation in those areas if it wants to capture where these jobs are going to be moving," Kochan said. "Now, this is tricky because GM, Ford and Stellantis can't afford to really have a lot of conflict with the UAW over this issue as they go into contract negotiations in 2023."

Negotiations with the UAW will happen as GM and rival automakers are pushing to make EVs as profitable as their internal combustion engine products. At an Investor Day event last week in New York, GM executives said they expect EVs to hit that mark by 2025.

When asked how labor negotiations could impact GM's EV profitability expectations, CEO Mary Barra told investors: "With where our employees are at today, it's a good middle-class wage. We'll work through the negotiations and manage that and manage the overall cost, like we do every time."

Barra noted she's on record saying GM supports plants getting unionized.

"We have also done a lot of education to make sure that the UAW and our members understand the affordability," she said. "We've insourced work, which is good for the country and good for our workforce ... but we also have to make sure we're competitive. And so we regularly have those conversations, as well."

The UAW in October filed to have a union election on behalf of about 900 workers at the joint-venture Ultium Cells plant in Warren, Ohio. The filing, made with the Cleveland office of the National Labor Relations Board, came after a back-and-forth on whether Ultium would recognize the union through a card check process instead of an election.

UAW President Ray Curry at the time said most Ultium workers have signed cards to authorize UAW representation. But Ultium declined to recognize the UAW as the employees' union.

The UAW could not be reached for comment Tuesday. The UAW has continually expressed confidence in being able to organize the Warren battery plant — not surprising given the battery plant's proximity to the former GM Lordstown Assembly plant the automaker closed in 2019 and later sold to a startup automaker. The plant is now owned by Taiwanese electronics company Foxconn.

"For this particular plant, it's critical for the UAW because they had Lordstown, Ohio, right across the street. So it's a union friendly town; it's an important sector in the economy; (and) it's not a heavily anti-union neighborhood," said Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University's ILR School. "But it's a very high likelihood that LG will try to fight along with GM to try to keep the prices and benefits down ... what they don't want is to be paying more for their employees."

Ultium Cells spokesperson Brooke Waid said in a Tuesday statement the company "respects workers’ right to choose union representation and the efforts of the UAW to organize battery cell manufacturing workers at our Ohio manufacturing site."