Ford Motor Co. has not even said it is ready to build a battery plant somewhere in the U.S., but the United Auto Workers already is preparing for the announcement by making it plain they expect it to be a union shop.
The UAW outlined its position after Ford revealed plans this week to spend $185 million to build a new technical center dedicated to the development, testing and manufacture of battery cells.
Ford’s Ion Park will be in Southeast Michigan on a site that will be selected soon and will have a dedicated staff of 150. Traditionally Ford engineers and technicians are classified as white-collar employees and don’t belong to the UAW. By contrast significant numbers of technicians and skilled trade employees working on advanced projects at General Motors and Stellantis, formerly Fiat Chrysler, do belong to the UAW.
The future is now
However, with the industry undergoing rapid change, the jobs — and future wages of employees in the battery plants — have become critical to the union, UAW officials noted.
“The unique collaborative effort at Ion Park will position Ford and UAW members and families to prosper for decades to come,” said Gerald Kariem, the UAW vice president in charge of the union’s Ford Department. “There is crucial work to be done to make sure that the technology, infrastructure and market for consumer demand catches up with the promise of electric vehicles.
“We are equally committed to making sure that we remain flexible to consumer demand rather than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. As we replace the internal combustion engine, we need to make sure that the jobs of tomorrow are good-paying union wage and benefit jobs going forward,” Kariem added.
New investment key to UAW’s future
Given the massive investment domestic automakers — as well as their competitors — are making in battery-electric vehicles, UAW President Rory Gamble noted their success is the UAW’s success and the security of its membership.
“If we get these investments wrong, the workers will be the ones who suffer,” he said previously. “But if we get these investments right, we can build a strong jobs climate with good paying jobs for American families that last for decades.”
Ford, while reducing production of internal combustion engines, has stepped up investments in unionized plants building components for its new battery-electric vehicles.
Gamble said the union is pressing the Biden administration to ensure new battery plants required by the auto industry in North America are built in the U.S.
UAW representation at GM’s new battery plants
The UAW already staked a claim to represent workers at new Ultium battery plant that GM and LG Chem are erecting in Lordstown, Ohio and a second battery plant GM announced it is planning to build in Spring Hill, Tennessee.
“These are important jobs and we continue to work with General Motors on the transition to electric vehicles. We believe that GM has a moral obligation to work with the UAW and the joint venture partner to make sure these are good paying union jobs like those of their brothers and sisters who make internal combustion engines,” Terry Dittes, head of the GM Department said.
However, wages of workers hired into the battery plants will be lower than those at plants building internal combustion engines because they will be classified as new employees and subject to a lower hourly rate than workers with seniority at factories building engines and transmissions.
New study sees way to gain jobs
The union also hopes the Biden administration can help make the transition from ICE to battery-electric vehicles easier on the UAW’s slowly declining membership numbers.
Earlier this year, the UAW’s Research Department revised an earlier study, which predicted job losses at engine and transmission plants. The new study suggests that jobs in the auto industry could increase if more battery-electric vehicles and their key components are built in the United States rather than abroad.
The emphasis on U.S. assembly could offset the inevitable job losses that will occur in engine and transmission plants where many UAW members now work as the industry shifts to battery-electric vehicles, according to the study, which was basically an extension of the UAW report issued in 2018 that warned of potential job losses.