When General Motors made a deadline-day offer for a new labor contract to the UAW last week, it came with a gift. The company was prepared to build batteries in an Ohio town that’s been sweating the prospect that half a century of car-making will come to an end.
But there was a catch. GM and an as-yet-unnamed battery supplier for its next-generation electric vehicles would offer wages similar to what the automaker pays non-assembly workers who top out at $17 an hour, according to people familiar with the proposal. Senior-level plant staff make roughly $30 an hour. The shortfall is one of several reasons the union rejected GM and went on strike.
For the UAW, who builds electric vehicles and how much they earn is an existential issue. Negotiators are already trying to get a better deal for temporary and less-tenured workers who don’t make the top assembly wage -- part of a tiered-pay system set up to rebuild union ranks in the wake of the recession. If it caves to GM again, the UAW fears it will be chasing wages for a generation.
There are also grave concerns with essentially incentivizing GM to plow money into plants making battery cells and packs -- which may require less labor and likely use more non-union sub-assembly components -- at the expense of unionized factories making engines and transmissions for gas-burning autos.
The implications are much bigger than just the future of Lordstown, where GM idled an assembly car plant in March, much to the chagrin of President Donald Trump. The project GM has planned is to make batteries for some of the 20 electric models the company has vowed to sell globally by 2023, potentially including the electric trucks that were part of its offer to the UAW. It’s a key component of GM’s transformation and will employ a lot of workers, one of the people said.
GM has reason to view its offer as a gift. Right now, GM buys batteries for its Chevrolet Bolt electric car from South Korean supplier LG Chem. The UAW doesn’t represent those workers.
The largest producer of electric vehicles is Tesla Inc., whose CEO Elon Musk has vehemently and publicly opposed the UAW. A Tesla employee who called for forming a union at the company’s assembly plant in 2017 claimed assembly workers there made between $17 and $21 an hour, though they also are compensated with stock options.
A union-represented battery plant in Lordstown would position the union for the electric age. But rather than see the offer as a way to add new members for decades to come, the UAW fears spend it will spend that time fighting to restore the level of pay and benefits won over the past 80 years.
The battery factory would not be located in GM’s idled Lordstown assembly plant. GM wants to go forward with a plan to sell the facility to a venture overseen by fledgling electric-vehicle maker Workhorse Group Inc.