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GM-Ultium battery workers to vote this weekend on new UAW deal. Here's what it includes

Kalea Hall, The Detroit News on

Published in Automotive News

Workers at General Motors Co.'s first joint-venture battery plant in northeast Ohio will vote this weekend on an initial union contract with wage improvements likely to set a pattern for the industry as more battery plants open.

After announcing the deal on Friday, the United Auto Workers this week released details of the first deal with Ultium Cells, the GM and LG Energy Solution battery cell joint venture. The details include a breakdown of wage rates with increases of 30% over the four-year deal and how health and safety concerns will be addressed, a primary concern for workers handling battery material. As the first battery plant to open and be organized by the UAW, the contract sets a standard for pay at new and coming battery plants.

"It means we are trying not to low-ball everything and the UAW had enough strength to negotiate a fair wage increase to make it not a lower-tier, not a lower-paid industry ... that was some of the concern that if we transition to batteries, does that mean everybody has to give up a good middle-class job? I think this helps with that," said Art Wheaton, an automotive industry specialist at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School who has done training for the UAW, GM and Ford Motor Co.

Ultium spokesperson Katie Burdette on Wednesday said in a statement: "We are pleased to have reached a tentative agreement with the UAW and await the outcome of the ratification vote. We have no additional comments at this time."

One of the key issues of last year's negotiations between the UAW and the Detroit Three automakers, which included a 46-day strike at GM, was organizing at joint venture-owned battery plants and whether those workers would be included in the union's master contract with the company, making them eligible for similar pay and benefits as autoworkers at assembly and component plants. GM ultimately agreed for Ultium Cells employees to be in its master agreement.

GM and LG Energy Solution's Ultium Cells LLC plant in Warren, Ohio, which opened in August 2022, now employs 1,700 people, according to its website. It's near the former GM Lordstown Assembly Plant, which closed in 2019. Workers there are represented by the UAW Local 1112. They organized with the union in December 2022.

The companies started cell production at a new plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, in March 2024 and plan to start production at a plant in Lansing later this year. Those plants are not yet unionized.

Upon ratification of the GM-UAW contract last November, Ultium Cells workers in Warren received an immediate pay increase of at least $6 to $8 per hour. New-hire pay increased to a minimum of 75% of the maximum wage rate under the deal. An Ultium worker making $20 per hour before last year's agreement saw a 34% increase in pay to $26.91.

Ultium workers had received hikes to their starting pay to $20 per hour from $16.50 when they originally organized, but many employees still expressed discontent, since their top pay remained below the $32.32 wage that full-time traditional GM workers made at that time.

"The wages that were paid at some of the taxpayer-subsidized plants were really a scandal," said Patrick Anderson, CEO of East Lansing-based consulting firm Anderson Economic Group. "The action here by General Motors and the UAW is pretty much accepting the reality that you can't expect people to work in a manufacturing environment in today's auto industry at the wages that they were paying in battery plants before. It wasn't fair and it wasn't sustainable in a competitive market."

The new UAW-Ultium deal will give most workers a $3.59 per hour raise immediately. Workers will also receive a $3,000 ratification bonus.

Upon ratification, production workers with one-year seniority will go from $26.91 to $30.50 per hour, maxing out at $35 per hour in September 2027. At the end of their contract in 2028, GM workers at assembly plants and other facilities will make $42.95 per hour.

During the strike last fall, BlueOval SK, the joint venture between Ford Motor Co. and battery manufacturer SK On, said it was raising wages for workers it was recruiting to work at three battery plants it's building in Tennessee and Kentucky, which start opening next year. Maintenance technicians and associate maintenance technicians would be paid between $24 and $37.50 per hour, based on experience, it said at the time.

 

Judi Viets, 62, who works as a production operator in the de-gas department at the Ohio Ultium plant, said the contract "is such a big win for Ultium employees." Viets started at the plant in 2022 making $16.50 an hour. With the new contract, she will go up to $30.50. She'll "absolutely" be voting yes on the deal.

"I’ve been working two full-time jobs, now I’m happy to say I don’t have to do that anymore," she told The Detroit News. "I have a planned upcoming trip to Spring Hill, Tennessee, to see my children and grandchildren, I may just spoil them a little bit more during my visit."

Other benefits of the deal include a $1 wage premium for the mixing and coating department, 10% shift premium for night shift workers, and improved holiday pay.

The UAW-Ultium highlighter includes nearly four pages focused on health and safety improvements in the contract, including having four health and safety representatives and one industrial hygienist at the plant. The plant will also have a Safety Review Board to meet on a regular basis to review health and safety issues.

"They spent a huge deal of time improving the health and safety there. There were so many incidents, there wasn't a lot of people doing anything about any of the incidents. Ever since we got the UAW, they've done so much to improve the health and safety there," said Johnny Pence, a 29-year-old quality worker at the plant who started in 2022. He also plans to vote yes on the deal.

Region 2B Director Dave Green, who helped negotiate the deal, said health and safety and wages were leading concerns.

"Our whole goal in this was to help create a just transition from ICE (internal combustion engine) to EV," he said. "Stopping the race to the bottom starts with these great contracts ... this is going to set a pattern for future lithium-ion battery manufacturers across the board."

The 2023 UAW-GM agreement also opened the way for workers displaced by the 2019 closure of Lordstown Assembly Plant the opportunity to transfer to the nearby joint-venture battery plant in northeast Ohio.

Of 800-some eligible former Lordstown employees, Green said 200 have so far taken the offer, allowing them "to go back home, and that's just priceless."

Green was president of UAW Local 1112 when GM announced it would close Lordstown Assembly.

(Detroit News Staff Writer Breana Noble contributed.)


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