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The Dark Reality For Workers Building Our All-Electric Future

Ultium Cells’ worker exposes the hidden reality of the electric car boom.

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More Perfect Union went to Lordstown, Ohio, to see what the electric vehicle revolution actually looks like for the workers making it possible. 

Lordstown is home to one of Ultium Cells’ three battery manufacturing plants — and the town is no stranger to auto manufacturing. The first GM car rolled off the Lordstown Assembly line in 1966. For the next 6 decades, GM was the town’s largest industrial employer and a crucial source of well-paying, union jobs. 

“I remember the exact moment my mom got the job [at GM],” said Tony Russo, a lifetime Lordstown resident and current Ultium worker. “It changed her life.” 

The crash

Lordstown’s auto boom came crashing down in 2019, when GM announced it was shuttering its Lordstown plant. More than 1,300 workers lost their jobs. “People had to sell their homes and move away.  I lost a lot of good friends, people that I grew up with,” Russo said. 

A year later, when GM announced it was opening Ultium Cells, a new electric vehicle battery plant, workers hoped it was a return of the good jobs of the past. 

The joint partnership between GM and LG received a $2.5 billion loan from the federal government to build these new manufacturing facilities in Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. According to the Department of Energy, these plants will create 6,000 construction jobs and 5,100 operations jobs.

“We’re really at this opportunity to say as we start to build all these things we are going to make sure that there are good wages and benefits in these facilities,” said Karla Walter, the senior director of Employment Policy at the Center for American Progress.

 But so far that hasn’t been the case. 

Unlike GM, Ultium workers start at $16.50/hour. Because it’s technically a new company, the UAW’s existing contract with GM doesn’t cover these workers.

Safety

Workers we spoke to also described minimal training and exposure to hazardous chemicals and unsafe working conditions. At least 22 workers suffered injuries or illnesses at the electric plant in just the first five months of 2023, according to OSHA reports. Most recently, the Environmental Protection Agency mandated an air quality inspection that closed Russo’s department. 

Photos from inside the plant obtained by More Perfect Union show a worker covered in a dried up slurry containing N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP) and carbon nanotubes. In 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that NMP “presents unreasonable risk to human health.” Exposure to carbon nanotubes has been linked to lung fibrosis and cancer. 

When workers raise safety concerns they often face severe consequences. “I have seen several members and mixing, in our cathode mixing department, that were retaliated against by management for raising a grave safety issue in their department, ” said Russo. “They were all suspended pending investigation without pay.” 

Bargaining chaos

Ultium unionized with the UAW and contract negotiations are ongoing. “The bargaining process has been nothing but tumultuous chaos,” said Russo. “Over and over again, we’re told one thing by the company and then they turn around and do something completely opposite.”

As the UAW negotiates its contract with the Big Three automakers, more than half of Democratic Senators have called for the new contract to cover all workers under joint venture initiatives like Ultium. 

Aside from a strong union contract, there’s more the federal government might be able to do for workers at plants getting taxpayer funds. 

From Russo’s perspective, “they need to stop giving taxpayer dollars to companies that  essentially treat their workers like gum on the bottom of a boot.” 

Policy experts suggest “adopt[ing] wage standards to ensure that when the government supports private sector corporations, their manufacturing workers are paid market wages and benefits,” said Walter. 

“We have these sorts of standards in other sectors like construction. We’ve had them for nearly 100 years. And manufacturing workers deserve the same.”

Biden needs to act

The UAW has held off on endorsing Biden for re-election. Former President Trump appealed to auto workers last week, taking advantage of the fact that the move to an electric vehicle future isn’t meeting workers’ needs.

At the very least, Russo asked Joe Biden to come see the Ultium plant for himself and take a stand on behalf of workers. “I wish President Biden actually came down here and just took a walk through our production floor. These are extremely skilled technical jobs that require a lot of skill and a lot of training to do and I wish President Biden knew that.”

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