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To preserve jobs, EV battery plants must have union representation, UAW head says

If the United Auto Workers can't organize workers at new U.S. electric vehicle (EV) battery factories that will supply Detroit's Big Three automakers, the union's future would be in serious doubt, says UAW's president.

U.S. auto union looks to workers' future as Big Three pushes toward electric

The union representing thousands of autoworkers in the U.S. wants to see staff at new joint-venture battery plants unionized, as Big Three moves toward electric vehicle production operations. (David Richard/The Associated Press)

If the United Auto Workers can't organize workers at new U.S. electric vehicle (EV) battery factories that will supply Detroit's Big Three automakers, the union's future would be in serious doubt, says UAW's president.

Ray Curry said union representation at the battery plants is critical, given the major automakers are staking their futures on the widespread adoption of electric vehicles.

"It's going to be key to lock down that type of new technology," Curry said in an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, the eve of the 372,000-member union's convention in Detroit this week. "Everybody is dependent upon what happens out of that bargaining."

General Motors, Ford and Stellantis have announced plans to build seven U.S. factories in joint ventures with battery makers — Stellantis is set to build one in Canada in Windsor, Ont. The plants are expected to employ thousands and to supply power for electric vehicles that the automakers say will account for as much as half of their U.S. sales by 2030. EVs now constitute only about five per cent of the market.

In March, Ontario Premier Doug Ford along with federal and municipal officials announced Windsor will be home to an electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant, a joint-venture project between Stellantis and LG Energy Solution. (Mike Evans/CBC)

During the years-long transition from combustion engines to electricity, Curry said, thousands of workers who now manufacture engines and transmissions will need jobs. He said these workers should receive top assembly-line wages, now around $32 US an hour, without any jobs lost to the technology change.

Any decision on union representation will be part of contract talks that will start next summer with the three automakers.

Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst at Guidehouse Insights, agreed that as gasoline-powered vehicle sales decline and battery plants become one of the industry's few employment growth areas, the UAW will need to organize these factories if it is to retain jobs. Fewer workers, he noted, will be required to build electric vehicles, which are much simpler to produce than combustion-engine vehicles.

"They're going to lose a lot of members, especially from power-train plants and some other component plants, and also probably from assembly plants," Abuelsamid said of the union.

Complicating matters is because the plants are joint ventures between the automakers and battery manufacturers, the two companies may differ on the issue of union representation. GM, which will open the first of the battery plants this summer in Lordstown, Ohio, has said it will support the UAW's representation.

Two people wearing hard hats and protective clothing work in a factory.
A worker installs EV batteries inside the battery pack shop at the electric automobile plant of VinFast in Haiphong on April 7. The union representing U.S. autoworkers wants to see those employed at newly built American factories to receive similar wages to those in combustion-engine and traditional manufacturing plants. (Nhac Nguyen/AFP/Getty Images)

The issue of EV jobs is so important to the future of the UAW that some industry analysts predict strikes against automakers once contracts expire in September 2023. Because automakers want costs to be competitive with non-union battery plants, strikes, if they occur, could run long.

Any decision to strike would be up to the UAW's members, Curry said. The union, he said, could reach a deal with one automaker "and then the others all line up."

Curry argued that labour costs make up only a small portion of total battery expenses and paying union wages would still leave the new factories competitive with non-union battery plants.

With inflation at a 40-year high, the union will seek to restore cost-of-living pay raises, which were suspended after the 2008-2009 Great Recession battered the auto industry.

"You cannot, during a four-year agreement, not have increased wages and sustain your purchasing power," Curry said.

When UAW workers at John Deere won cost-of-living raises last year after a month-long strike, Curry said, it raised interest among workers in the auto and other industries.

The union also is trying to organize workers at factories in the south that are run by automakers based in other countries. Curry said it's looking at electric vehicle startups and is still trying to organize Tesla's factory in Fremont, Calif.

He said the UAW has recruiters at many of the locations, including at Nissan and Volkswagen factories whose workers narrowly rejected union representation during the past few years. Curry declined to say where the first vote might take place.

UAW holding elections following scandal

At this week's convention, delegates will nominate candidates for all the union's top offices, to be elected this fall. In the past, delegates to the four-year convention chose the officers. But last year, members voted for direct elections in the wake of a bribery and embezzlement scandal that sent two former UAW presidents and other union officials to prison.

Curry, appointed last year to replace a retiring president, said he will run, and he will face opposition.

To avoid a federal takeover after the scandal, the union agreed to financial reforms and a court-appointed monitor to oversee its operations. Last week, the monitor, Neil Barofsky, accused UAW leaders of concealing misconduct by an official and failing to put proper financial controls in place. The union's conduct interfered with the monitor's ability to do his work, Barofsky wrote.

His assertions raised questions about whether the union has reformed itself as it has announced. Barofsky wrote he sent two cases to the U.S. attorney in Detroit for investigation.

Curry conceded Barofsky should have been notified about the misconduct earlier and said the union has hired a new top lawyer. Also, he noted, its outside law firm is no longer dealing with the monitor. He said the union has tried to reset its relationship with Barofsky and blamed, in part, miscommunication.

"What we've asked him now is if there's something that's not right, that doesn't line up, and you've got a question about it, please advise us because we would not want to hear it six months later as part of a report."

Barofsky also asserted the union lacks controls in place requiring budgets for internal conferences. Nor does it have limits on spending for drinks, dinners and other line items.

Curry said those safeguards are coming, contending it takes time to adopt all the reforms while the union manages contract talks, organizing and other issues.

"All of these things can't happen overnight," he said. "But I can assure you, we're working to make sure that they happen."

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