Will the Clean Energy Auto Economy Be Built on Factory Floors Riddled With Toxic Chemicals and Safety Hazards?
Thirty-year-old Rick Savage was among the first workers hired at Ultium Cells’ 2.8-million-square-foot battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio, in April 2022. “I heard about the battery plant and how it was going to be technologically superior to all other manufacturing companies,” Savage remembers thinking. “The future of the automotive industry is going to be electric.”
Ultium Cells was a high-profile joint venture between U.S. automaker General Motors and South Korea’s LG Energy Solution. The Lordstown plant — billed as the largest battery plant of its kind anywhere in the country — was predicted to cost some $2.3 billion and generate more than 1,100 new jobs. GM’s legacy as a union employer was part of the company’s sales pitch to new employees.
“They were saying, ‘Hey, it’s the next GM, you can retire here, it’s going to be great,’” Savage says.
Deindustrialization has been battering northeastern Ohio for half a century. Ohio hemorrhaged 50,000 jobs within five years after Youngstown Sheet & Tube shuttered its Campbell Works steel factory in 1977. In 2008, after GM shuttered its facility in Moraine, 2,000 autoworkers were left without jobs. The Chinese automotive-glass manufacturer Fuyao hired some of them when it took over the closed plant in 2014, but at much lower wages.
James Anderson, a worker who asked to use a pseudonym for fear of retaliation, was one of the thousands who lost their job in northeastern Ohio after GM’s Lordstown assembly plant closed in 2019 — after 52 years of cranking out cars. The closing of that Lordstown plant directly eliminated 1,500 jobs; hundreds of others lost positions at GM suppliers in the area.
For Savage, Anderson and others, the electric vehicle transition brought new hope. “We were sold a dream,” says 41-year-old Meghan Crockett, who started at the Ultium plant in Lordstown in May 2022. Like Savage, Crockett thought she was going to be part of ushering in a new clean-energy future. Sure, their wages started at a measly $15 and $16.50 an hour, but they were working for two, billion-dollar companies, and wages would improve over time.
Anderson previously earned $21 an hour in his union job making brake lines at GM supplier Comprehensive Logistics. When Ultium opened up, “People were expecting to get the same type of pay as GM workers,” he says. “When you hear GM in this town, you think of a good-benefit job, a good-paying job, something you can retire from and, you know, prosper.”
But he was earning only $15 an hour as a material handler at Ultium. “It is a very steep pay cut,” he tells me in the company parking lot at 5:30 a.m. during a shift change in August.
Many of the jobs at Ultium are highly skilled and workers interviewed for this article say they toil within an often hazardous environment.
At other GM plants, workers who assemble cars often start at $18 an hour and top out at $32 an hour. Those wages are assured by a master labor agreement with GM negotiated by the United Auto Workers (UAW). But as “joint ventures,” the electric vehicle plants of GM and the other “Big Three” automakers aren’t covered by the labor agreement.
The contracts for some 150,000 workers across the Big Three automakers — GM, Ford and Stellantis — are expiring September 14. And the safety standards and wages of these electric vehicle workers loom large over the UAW’s ongoing negotiations. The UAW is demanding that workers at electric vehicle battery plants receive the same pay, benefits and safety standards as UAW members at other auto factories. What’s at stake is no less than the future of American car manufacturing, and all eyes are watching how these negotiations will play out.
UAW President Shawn Fain, elected in March as part of a reform slate backed by the rank-and-file movement Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), has pledged to lead a strike if necessary to accomplish the union’s ambitious goals—chief among them, ending tiers on wages and benefits in which long-term workers enjoy better wages and benefits than new hires doing the same work. A two-week strike could cost GM $1.3 billion in profits, according to one Citi analyst’s estimate.
“Ultium Cells shows us that we are in danger of replacing oil barons with battery barons who are happy to take billions in taxpayer handouts while offering jobs that are dangerous and pay poverty wages,” Fain tells In These Times. “We are going to see this pattern play out in communities across the country, from the Great Lakes down to the Gulf of Mexico, unless unions fight for a just transition that doesn’t leave workers and working class communities behind.”
But the fact that Ultium Cells is a joint venture makes “folding them into the national agreement very difficult” for the UAW, says Arthur Wheaton, the director of labor studies at Cornell University who specializes in the auto sector. Therefore, the union’s demand is for “automakers [at the EV plants] to voluntarily agree to follow national agreements.”
Meanwhile, many federal lawmakers are urging the Big Three to do just that and fold their joint ventures into each of their national agreements. In late July, 28 Senate Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), signed a letter demanding that Big Three automakers bargain in good faith with the UAW and fold workers at joint-venture electric vehicle battery plants into their national contracts.
“UAW workers have made General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Stellantis the successful, innovative, and profitable companies they are today, and workers in the new electric vehicle sector will be critical to your future success. They must share in the benefits of a union contract,” the Senate Democrats wrote. “These are highly-skilled, technical, and strenuous jobs. To that end, it is unacceptable and a national disgrace that the starting wage at any current American joint venture electric vehicle battery facility is $16 an hour. We note that at $33,320 a year, the starting wage at one of these facilities is just above the poverty level for a family of four.”
At the end of the day, it’s not like the federal government is without leverage in these matters, but the outstanding question is how — and whether — they might further intervene. A strike at the Big Three auto companies could be comparable to taking down 2% of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), according to news reports that cited a recent Bank of America analysis. That analysis reportedly notes a strike “could incite intervention analogous to what occurred in the rail sector.” Last December, President Joe Biden and Congress intervened to block a national railroad strike. It was a move that drew the ire of many workers who felt betrayed by a president who has cast himself as a friend of labor. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has appointed a liaison to the Big Three automakers and the UAW.
Automakers and their joint-venture partners have received lucrative federal subsidies and billions of dollars in loans, all without the federal government requiring any specific wage or safety standards or benefit protections. The UAW has lambasted the White House for awarding those loans with no strings attached, a sharp contrast to the strong standards for federal contractors and a recent reset of prevailing wage standards in construction.
“The EV transition is at serious risk of becoming a race to the bottom,” Fain wrote in a May memo to union staff, announcing the UAW was holding off on endorsing Biden’s re-election campaign while it pushes for a “just transition” for workers, meaning guarantees that the switch to a renewable auto manufacturing economy creates safe and good-paying jobs on which workers can lead dignified lives.
“If the government is going to funnel billions in taxpayer money to these companies, the workers must be compensated with top wages and benefits,” Fain went on.
GM’s CEO Mary Barra has signaled that it’s not the company’s responsibility to guarantee work after a plant closes: “There’s a lot of conversation about job security. Job security is not something you negotiate. Job security is something that you earn,” she told a Wall Street gathering in 2019 after the company closed Lordstown Assembly and three other U.S. plants, eliminating 14,500 jobs. “And making sure they all understand that and their role is something we’ll double down on as we go forward.”
“We’re at a crossroads — politicians can’t profess support for unions and not speak out against plant closures,” Fain said during a Facebook Live session on August 1. “They can’t say they support workers and remain silent while CEOs like Mary Barra make 362 times what the average employee makes.” Barra received a total compensation package of $29 million in 2022.
For his part, Biden said in a statement August 14 that jobs facilitating the transition to a clean energy future at the Big Three should be “good jobs that can support a family.”
But the statement failed to mention joint ventures, which loom over the negotiations. The Biden administration has said that electric vehicles should make up half of all new vehicles sold by 2030. But the key question for the U.S. workforce is whether these new jobs will come with wages and benefits that provide for a good quality of life for workers.
The other big issue is safety: More than a year into its operations, Ultium has been dogged with reports of hazardous conditions, including fires and chemical leaks. In interviews with almost a dozen workers at the plant and by examining police records, In These Times corroborated many of these reports. Together, they raise a critical question that reaches beyond Lordstown: Will the clean energy economy be built on a factory floor riddled with toxic chemicals and safety hazards?
One of the most recent safety incidents happened less than two weeks ago. On Sunday, August 20, a chemical spill left black blots of a slurry substance on the floor of the mixing department at the Ultium plant, according to photos and videos obtained by the Detroit News. The slurry contained a hazardous solvent known as n-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP) used in the production of battery cells. “The NMP is the worst part of the slurry. It’s a nasty chemical that is definitely not good to breathe or get on your skin,” Greg Less, technical director at the University of Michigan Battery Lab, explains in an email to In These Times.
“The active material and conductive additive powders are very small particles that can cause respiratory issues if inhaled while still in their dry powder form,” says Less. “The active materials are suspected carcinogens due to their size and chemical makeup. Once dispersed into a slurry though, both of those materials are pretty well contained.”
Ultium said no employees were exposed or injured in the spill. “Upon the discovery of a cathode mixing slurry leak … immediate steps were taken to isolate the cause and contain the leak. The immediate surrounding area was cleared, and area mixing operations have been halted while we assess and address the situation,” according to a statement from the company. It went on to say that the “investigation into the cause of the spill is ongoing.”
But some workers believe that several SERVPRO employees were taken to the hospital. When asked about it, the company refused to respond to the question.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is investigating the spill.
Ultium Cells, though still negotiating its first contract and enforceable language to address safety issues, is the first unionized EV battery plant funded by the federal spending blitz. It received a $2.5 billion loan from the Department of Energy to spur battery cell manufacturing at three plants in Ohio, Tennessee and Michigan, while also benefiting from tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act. GM is expected to earn $300 million in tax credits in 2023 and aims to build one million electric vehicles a year by 2025.
It’s a critical moment in American auto manufacturing, comparable to the union’s previous failures to organize foreign-owned factories, or transplants. The UAW has witnessed a steep decline in its core manufacturing sector since the 1970s. GM, for example, is today about 11.5% of its more than 400,000 heyday in the 1970s. Organizing efforts in the South have failed, from a Nissan plant in Mississippi in 2017 to a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee in 2019. The UAW has joined a coalition of labor unions and civic groups targeting Hyundai’s electric vehicle plants and suppliers in Alabama and Georgia, an important swing state. They are also taking aim at Biden, urging him to act on behalf of workers.
“I know the president can’t make stipulations that all new jobs have to go to union workers, but there have to be fair labor standards for jobs that are supported by tax dollars,” David Green, the UAW’s regional director for Ohio and Indiana, told The New York Times.
Brian Callaci, chief economist at the anti-monopoly Open Markets Institute, compares today’s fight at EV plants to the UAW’s past efforts to extend its patterned bargaining agreements at the Big Three to larger auto parts suppliers. “In the early 1960s, supplier contracts started to fall behind, and companies began exiting UAW contracts,” Callaci says. “The parts industry ultimately grew largely outside the UAW’s influence, and today employment in parts dwarfs employment at the Big Three.”
“This is our generation’s defining moment with electric vehicles,” Fain told the Guardian in mid-August. “The government should invest in U.S. manufacturing but money can’t go to companies with no strings attached. Labor needs a seat at the table. There should be labor standards built in, this is the future of the car industry at stake.”
Capitalizing on generous subsidies and high demand, automakers and their joint venture partners are building plants across the country. GM has three more U.S. battery plants in the works with its Korean partners.
Ford is also building three battery plants with its Korean partner SK On in Kentucky and Tennessee after receiving a $9.2 billion loan from the Department of Energy, part of a joint venture called BlueOval SK. It has another battery plant planned with Chinese partner CATL in Michigan, which it reportedly hopes to open in 2026. Stellantis is also slated to open a battery plant in Indiana with joint-venture partner Samsung SDI in 2025.
The UAW estimates that more than 20 major automotive battery plants across 14 states have either been announced or begun production, with the potential to hire between 1,000 to 3,000 workers each. If the United States reaches its goal of 59 million EVs on the road by 2031, federal subsidies could reach $220 billion, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence estimated in June.
Ultium could haul in $1.25 billion in tax credits for battery cell production in a single year, according to the July UAW white paper, “High Risk & Low Pay.” A Good Jobs First study released in July, “Power Outrage,” projected that taxpayers will fork over $200 billion through the Advanced Manufacturing Production Credit, also known as the section 45X credit. Those credits would be enough to cover initial capital investments and wages for the first several years of production at five recently announced battery plants, according to the study. Ford’s forthcoming battery plant in Marshall, Mich., the study added, would get $3.4 million in subsidies per job — for jobs that pay $45,000 a year.
The Ultium Lordstown plant manufactures the cells that power electric batteries. These batteries are assembled elsewhere and put into the Cadillac Lyriq, the GMC Hummer EV and the Chevy Bolt EV. A recently announced collaboration would add them to locomotive fleets produced by the currently-striking United Electrical Workers at the Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corporation (Wabtec Corporation) plant in Erie, Pa.
Workers describe the facility as highly computerized, with automated guided vehicles bringing materials to workers on the line. Those workers stand for grueling 12-hour shifts, staring at computers measuring the thickness of materials, or pressing buttons to troubleshoot malfunctions with the machines. There is no heavy lifting, but workers say the factory floor is still blazingly hot (the company claims it is a temperature-controlled environment). There is a harsh symphony of clanging sounds, with robots moving at a dizzying pace and workers struggling to keep up. Workers say they undergo periodic hearing tests because of the noise.
The batteries they manufacture are made of lithium-ion electrochemical cells. Each cell has two electrodes — a positively charged cathode containing lithium, and a negatively charged anode, which is typically made of graphite. The cathode usually contains nickel, manganese, and cobalt oxides.
Lithium is highly reactive. It easily loses its outer electron and becomes an ion. “The cell basically works by ping-ponging these ions and electrons back and forth,” journalist Patrick Sisson explained in the MIT Technology Review. To enable this, lithium compounds are dissolved in a liquid solution called an electrolyte.
Ultium Cells doesn’t appear to publicly disclose the ingredients in the electrolyte solution it uses. Some are merely labeled “additive” and don’t have a chemical abstract number. That, according to the UAW, makes it “impossible to independently verify its hazards.”
The recent chemical leak is just the latest reminder of the dangers of EV battery production. In the clean transition, potential hazards are everywhere — from electric shocks to dangerous chemicals to fires.
Last October, two workers at the plant were exposed to “battery acid,” according to police reports. In May, police records also indicate there was a fire. And a month later, a defective battery burst into flames.
For protection, workers generally wear clean-room suits, hairnets, ear plugs and goggles, which make them look a bit like astronauts. These offer a modicum of protection to known hazards, but workers say other hazards are melded together into chemical elixirs of unknown ingredients and lurk in the nooks and crannies of the machines they operate.
When the plant first opened, Savage says, the company didn’t even post a Safety Data Sheet, which lists all dangerous chemicals in any given facility.
One of those dangerous chemicals is NMP. The UAW white paper notes it is used in manufacturing the cathode. “Acute exposure may damage unborn children, cause respiratory tract irritation, skin irritation, nausea, headache, dizziness and diarrhea,” according to the UAW white paper.
“In manufacturing the anode, the company uses a product called Lucan BT1003M,” the UAW white paper continues. “More than 95% of it consists of carbon nanotubes, which can cause germ-cell mutations and cancer.”
The UAW’s industrial hygienist, Darius Sivin, says there are dangers to routine airborne exposure to the electrolyte mixture and carbon nanotubes, not to mention the risks posed by potential leaks and spills of electrolyte and NMP. These dangers are far from hypothetical and are tallied up in worker stories and in emergency response calls, with multiple reports of workers passing out, vomiting, having allergic reactions and difficulty breathing.
Lithium hexafluorophosphate (LiPF6) is one of the ingredients in the electrolyte. It can react with water and moisture on a person’s skin, eyes and respiratory tract, releasing corrosive acids, according to the UAW white paper.
With so many volatile and hazardous chemicals present, the Lordstown Fire Department was even worried it didn’t have enough training to deal with everything happening inside the plant.
“It is a concern with our fire departments and emergency responding to battery fires, chemical spills,” Lordstown Fire Chief Travis Eastham said in a July 2022 interview with local news station 21 WFMJ after a chemical leak at the plant. “We do need to get some type of program here to train firefighters and my thoughts are, if we are going to be named Voltage Valley, we need to lead the way. We don’t need to be learning later on. We need to be learning now and teach other places how to control these types of batteries and spills and things of that nature.”
In April, Ultium publicized a two-hour training event for area fire departments on how to “operate safely” when facing incidents involving electric battery vehicles.
The July 2022 WFMJ news report noted three hazardous chemicals present at the facility: hydrogen, which can cause an explosion; difluoromethane, a refrigerant which can cause suffocation; and Ensaco, which can have combustible dust.
Since official production started at Ultium in October 2022, records show at least 48 calls have been placed to police related to health and safety at the plant. They have included fires, bodily injuries, and symptoms like dizziness, fainting, vomiting, allergies, trouble breathing, chest pain, smoke inhalation and seizures.
Ultium has paid $12,431 in fines — accounting for reduced amounts and settlements — to OSHA for workplace violations since the plant opened last year. It has been the subject of at least 11 separate OSHA inspections into various health and safety complaints. The UAW also says 22 workers suffered injuries at the plant and missed a total of 200 days of work in the first five months of 2023.
Around the time that official production started, one of the machines in the roll press department began leaking coolant. The coolant turns into a vapor once it comes into contact with moisture, so Savage and his coworkers described it as a gas leak. Managers, he says, accused them of creating “panic and chaos” and being “troublemakers.”
Savage says there were 20 workers in training when suddenly they started complaining of a smell in the air and began experiencing piercing headaches, nausea and dizziness.
“Something’s wrong,” he recalls telling managers. “There’s some sort of smell on the lines. People are getting sick.” A manager told them to return to the line, he says, so they did until they couldn’t anymore.
Coolant leaks have since become frequent, Savage says, and maintenance workers have a hack to fix them: They wrap Teflon tape around the threads of fittings to prevent larger spills until the leak is properly sealed.
When the leaks aren’t fixed, Savage says supervisors say to rotate people out on that machine. “Once one person gets too sick, we’ll just put someone else over there until they get sick and then rotate them out,” he recalls one supervisor saying. “Pardon the pun, we’re not replaceable batteries, you’re gonna swap in and out.”
Last year, a contractor at the Ultium plant was crushed by an automated crane while working inside the plant, suffering serious injuries, Travis Eastham, the local fire-station chief, told Bloomberg. “The worker was hospitalized for months and later died of his injuries.”
“We’ve actually been inside of a machine while tagged off,” says Savage. “And they’ve actually tried turning it back on and running it while we were inside of it.”
In May, six workers in the plant’s electrolyte-mixing department refused to work until the company installed safety showers in their work area, as required by OSHA regulations. Two of those workers, in a July 7 interview with 21 WFMJ, referred to the electrolyte mixing department where they worked as “the head of the snake in the battery making process.” They were suspended, with some later returning to work, according to the company.
In their first days on the job, Savage and his co-workers saw Ultium as a symbol of ingenuity and advanced technology propelling a clean economy forward. “It’s very high tech. And you’re just amazed when you first walk in,” says Camie Norquist, 38, who left her job at an ALDI supermarket to become a machine operator in Ultium’s packaging department.
She was dazzled by the plant, how pristine everything was and how the machines function, but not by the starting pay: $16.50 an hour. She assumed it’d get better with scheduled raises. “And then we find out, you get 50 cents after six months, and then when you hit your year, you only get 23 cents,” she says. “And then every year after that you only get 23 cents. That’s it. … We don’t even get cost-of-living increases.”
Norquist now describes the job as a “nightmare.” She has reported puddles of electrolyte solution on the floor to managers, only to be told to move to another machine.
“So we’re in there inhaling electrolyte,” she says, noting that they have only a cloth mask to protect them from toxic fumes.
One thing that “can lead to electrolyte leaks,” according to the UAW’s industrial hygienist, Sivin, is that “cells have to be cut open to test.”
Generations of Mandy McCoy’s family have worked at GM and its electrical-components supplier Packard Electric, enjoying the wages and benefits that came with good-paying union jobs. She had similar hopes for Ultium, where she started a year ago as a quality inspector earning $18 an hour. “I wanted to get in at the ground level and hopefully grow with this company,” says McCoy, 47.
McCoy says the packaging department is constantly having leaks, but management doesn’t bother to inform other workers in the nearby quality assurance department. “You’re far enough away,” she recalls a supervisor saying.
“We’re having fires from Canada come down and affect our air quality,” she says, wondering how a factory floor that is the size of 30 football fields wouldn’t be affected by a leak anywhere in the plant.
On May 17, an engineer dropped waste from another department into an uncovered garbage can in quality assurance, instantly emitting toxic gas and one worker began vomiting, according to the UAW report and worker interviews. The Lordstown 911 dispatch records described the worker as female with “chemical exposure earlier today, now vomiting and sick to stomach.” She was taken to the hospital.
Brittany Veltri, 27, left her job at a nonunion plastics factory over safety concerns and began working at Ultium in September 2022 in cell assembly in the lamination department. Since then, she says she’s experienced multiple electrical shocks.
“Because we have so much scrap going through [the line], and I can’t get to it to dump it, the cells kind of almost charge from sitting for so long,” she says. “There’s so much static, I get shocked multiple times, even with the safety gloves that we have to wear.”
Lithium-ion batteries “can hold high voltage and exceptional charge, making for an efficient, dense form of energy storage,” Sisson wrote in the MIT Technology Review. But that high voltage can also pose hazards for workers.
The gloves the company provides don’t offer enough protection against shocks, Veltri says. At one point this summer, she got shocked so badly that the electrical charge sent searing pain up through her arms to her face. “It’s a different shock than like [when] you rub your feet on the floor and you go and shock somebody,” she says. “One time I saw a spark.”
In July 2022, a man was taken to the hospital after an electrical shock, according to 911 records reviewed by WFMJ.
“All manufacturing requires large amounts of electric energy and hence lends itself to electric shocks,” the UAW’s Sivin tells In These Times. “In this case, the product itself stores and can potentially release large amounts of electric energy.”
“If you complete a circuit with other parts of your body (e.g., left and right shoulders) anti-shock gloves will do nothing,” he adds. “Even if it is the hands contacting the source of electric power, the gloves have a certain amount of electric insulation that can probably be overcome with a high enough voltage.”
Veltri says that she’s also concerned about being at risk for reproductive issues due to the chemicals and carcinogens from the materials she handles on the factory floor. She’s in the same room as workers in the packaging department, where they handle electrolyte solution. As part of the battery assembly process, workers come into contact with NMP, which the UAW’s white paper says “may damage unborn children.” Veltri says that when there is an electrolyte leak, “you smell it, and you’re going to get an instant headache, instant stomach ache, and it’s hard to breathe.”
“Dealing with the electrolytes, too, there is a possible chance of ruining your reproductive system,” Veltri says. Norquiest adds that, on the electrolyte bind, there’s a warning message: “This chemical can cause defects in your reproductive system.”
The UAW white paper calls for hazardous materials at Ultium to be managed using a hierarchy of controls. “The hierarchy of controls is a way of determining which actions will best control exposures,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The hierarchy of controls has five levels of actions to reduce or remove hazards.” The preferred order of action for general effectiveness ranges from elimination to substitution to engineering controls to administrative controls to personal protective equipment.
To prevent shocks, “The best solution is engineering controls to eliminate the possibility of worker exposure to electricity,” says Sivin, after hearing a description of what happened to Veltri.
But Savage says that after workers staged impromptu work stoppages because they felt unsafe, the company has made some changes, including providing workers with N95 masks instead of paper masks. The company also created a second emergency exit after the UAW says OSHA cited it for blocking an exit with a machine. In a settlement, OSHA dropped all fines.
In a statement to In These Times about all of the various worker claims and safety issues at the plant, Ultium says that “nothing is more important to us than the safety of our team members” and that “your list of allegations is not an accurate depiction of the overall work environment at Ultium Cells.”
The statement goes on: “We are working hard to create a culture of continuous innovation, prioritize a diverse and inclusive workforce, maintain a safe working environment, advance sustainable operations, and have a positive impact on Warren and surrounding communities.”
The plant has four health and safety representatives who were selected in April to step in to fix issues as they arise or escalate them up the chain of command, according to the UAW. But the big issue is enforcement and that should be easier once workers negotiate a contract and put in place language that shop stewards can enforce on the factory floor. The GM master agreement is a model, which originated in 1973, and created joint health and safety committees within the company’s auto factories. As the UAW white paper notes, “It provides for a hazardous material control committee that has the authority to prevent chemicals from coming into the workplace and, where certain hazardous materials are necessary for production, to plan for their use as safely as possible before they enter the workplace.”
“In a just transition to production of climate-friendly modes of transportation, the best practices for ensuring worker health and safety should be enshrined as a matter of standard corporate (and public) practice in union contracts,” Michael Felsen, who worked as an attorney at the U.S. Department of Labor for nearly four decades and now serves as an advisor for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, tells In These Times. “We urgently need a rapid transition to safe energy alternatives, but we cannot allow worker health and safety to be sacrificed in the process.”
Workers I spoke with believe managers’ primary objective is to keep production running at all costs. “We run bad material,” says Veltri, referring to the production process the battery cells go through. “They just release the material … to make production.”
Norquist says engineers intervene when quality assurance flags a problem. “The engineer will come over and say, ‘Run it anyways. We don’t care if it’s no good.’”
Savage says he makes about 35,000 meters a day of the mineral-mixed slurry, more than 20 rolls, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Veltri says that when she started she had to make 5,000 packaged battery cells in a 12-hour shift, but that has increased to 14,500 cells.
These packages come in a protective cover in a gray cellophane pouch, making them look like a package of oversized Pop-Tarts. In cell assembly, Veltri works two stacking lines simultaneously, doubling her output.
“It’s very overwhelming, especially to have one alarm going off to change tape. And then the other side has the same issue. And it takes about six or so minutes to change tape,” she says. “So you’re down for almost 12 minutes on one side while you’re trying to do the other one.”
Workers at the plant also raised concerns about a clogged ventilator, but the company left the problem unaddressed, according to Savage and Norquist. In March, several workers say there was some type of an explosion due to dust build-up clogging the ventilation system that set off sprinklers and flooded the factory floor.
In another incident, Gavin Currey, a production maintenance technician, was sprayed in the face by toxic electrolyte liquid solution.
“After I was gassed, for a second, I couldn’t breathe,” Currey told the UAW. “I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t tell the worker closest to me what had happened. I was groggy, dizzy. I had a hard time standing while we waited for security to arrive.”
Some workers estimate turnover is more than 50% at the plant. “I feel like people are scared,” says Justin Garrity, a worker who I met in the parking lot during shift change. “Honestly, they come down to do a tour to see how it is and then they leave.”
“People go to lunch, they don’t come back,” says Norquist. She adds that it takes two years to learn many of the machines inside and out. But she says workers often don’t stick around long enough to learn.
The prospect of good jobs still draws people to the plant, but apparently not fast enough to keep up with staffing shortages. McCoy says she became one of the senior workers by dint of how many people quit.
Garrity says there are typically only eight people running 10-person lines. “Basically, to sum it up, we are overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, and understaffed,” he says in the company parking lot at 5 a.m. after clambering out of a pick-up truck with a rust mark on the fender shaped like an unknown landmass. He is lanky, with brown wisps of hair plastered to his forehead by a mixture of balmy weather and sweat. He is chatty and alert but also eyeing the entrance, lest he be late for work.
“Management was pretty bad,” says his coworker Dante Butler in reference to the attendance point system the company uses. Workers can be fired after accruing 9 points within a certain timeframe. He says workers accrue points for being tardy, among other things.
Then I met a worker, “Roof,” the street name by which he asked to be called to protect himself from management reprisals.
Roof says his family discouraged him from taking a job at Ultium because there was a fire a month before he started. In the end, he opted to leave his job at Panera Bread to chase the prospect of joining a growing company. “They got different plants opening up. And that means opportunities to transfer maybe to Tennessee, Michigan or within the organization.”
He has a fresh-hire, can-do attitude about the plant — and life. Like other workers when they first started, he speaks of the plant as a technologically advanced and enchanting workplace.
“I don’t know a lot of the ins and outs, but everything I have learned is state of the art,” he says. He adds the hardest part is standing for 12 hours. But he quickly offers a note of optimism: “I like it because then you ain’t got time to spend money on a bunch of crap all day.”
Roof and other workers stream out of the parking lot to go home to their loved ones in one piece as more people arrive to take their spots in the parking lot and then on the factory floor.
“My hope is that when I wake up in the morning, I don’t have to wonder if I’m coming home or not, or if I’m going to be missing a limb, or if my lungs are going to be damaged by the fumes that I’m breathing in,” says Savage. But despite it all, he and other workers are rooting for Ultium to make it.
“I think it’ll do nothing but good for Lordstown and Ohio for Ultium Cells to flourish and be a great company,” he says. “The better it does, the better it’ll do for Ohio.”
One way workers have tried to make their conditions better was to unionize the plant. When a union drive began in June 2022, workers’ main concerns were better wages and safety. In December 2022, they voted to unionize with UAW Local 1112 by a 710-16 margin. Despite the overwhelming support from workers, the company had already refused to voluntarily recognize the union.
But the UAW recently won a partial victory when worker organizing and public pressure helped force Ultium to raise wages.
On August 27, Ultium workers reached an interim agreement with the company, voting 895 to 22 in favor to ratify it. The agreement immediately boosted wages by $3 to $4 an hour, bringing most starting pay from $16.50 an hour to $20, and rising to $21 an hour after six months or 1,000 hours. The interim agreement also gives workers a big wage bump retroactive to December 2022 — between $3,000 to $7,000, based on hours worked.
Many workers at the plant welcomed the news of the agreement, but they also are demanding more. “It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s going to take more than this to fix the relationship between employees and the company with how we’ve been mistreated,” says Savage.
“We would of course wanted it to be more, but a lot of us have been through a lot over the months,” says Norquist. “I think it will take a lot of stress off of us workers, but most of us don’t think it is a great long-term number to be at.”
At the same time, the union and workers are speaking in a unified voice to temper any cheerleading of the wage boost. “We aren’t done fighting for standard-setting wages and benefits at Ultium and beyond,” Fain said in a statement.
“Our members are going to receive well-deserved financial relief from the poverty wages they were making,” Green, UAW’s Region 2B director and a former Lordstown GM worker, told The Vindicator, a newspaper serving Youngstown and nearby areas. “But the struggle is real. We know this and the fight’s not going to be over until these workers are brought up to traditional autoworker standards.”
Overall, the union remains steadfast in its demand that the transition to EV create good jobs and mirror the strong safety standards of the existing Big Three contracts.
“In a just transition to EVs, jobs in the battery plants that will power this transition must be as good or better than current jobs building internal combustion engine vehicles and components,” the “High Risk & Low Pay” white paper reads.
Some experts speculate that the transition to EV could cause massive job losses. The Economic Policy Institute put out a report in September 2021 estimating that it could cost roughly 75,000 U.S. auto industry jobs by 2030, but could also create 150,000 if subsidies were provided to spur domestic production. Other industry studies have found that EVs come with fewer moving parts and require 30% to 40% less labor to produce than internal-combustion vehicles. Still, other studies say the EV transition will require more labor, not less.
It may still be too early to arrive at a definitive answer. “While internal combustion engine and EV vehicles require similar amounts of labor to produce according to some analyses, their content differs substantially,” reads a June 2021 White House report titled “Building Resilient Supply Chains, Revitalizing American Manufacturing, and Fostering Broad-Based Growth.”
“The biggest lever is going to be the way we design the vehicle for radical simplification of the labor content,” Ford Motor Company President and CEO Jim Farley said in a June 2022 fireside chat. “Half the fixtures, half the workstations, half the welds, 20% less fasteners. We design it because it’s such a simple product, to radically change the manufacturability, take the content out and labor, and optimize the engineering.”
That is the specter looming over the Big Three contract negotiations: the future of the next generation of autoworkers and auto manufacturing in the country. UAW leadership has called for a softer EV target that “increases stringency more gradually, and occurs over a greater period of time,” and says that Biden’s 2030 target would “risk disrupting the market that will make the EV transition possible.” SUVs and trucks are the Big Three’s most profitable vehicles.
The UAW’s “total asked-for package is likely too expensive to win all at once, but why ask for the minimum?” says Cornell’s Wheaton.
“The big question everyone’s going to ask is: How much is this gonna cost?” Fain said on the August 1 Facebook Live talk, channeling members’ anger at the soaring profits that the automakers have raked in, amounting to $250 billion over the past 10 years. “But if this awful pandemic taught us anything it’s that there’s more to life than just work. It’s not enough to just survive — we should all have a right to thrive. I believe all of us have a right to look back on our life and not regret spending so much of our time making hundreds of billions of dollars for greedy companies rather than spending time with our family and friends.”
McCoy was one of thousands of UAW members tuning into these popular Facebook talks and one line from Fain’s remarks has stayed with her: “A newly hired Ultium worker would have to work full-time for 16 years to earn what Mary Barra makes in a single week.”
Savage acknowledges the challenges ahead but is optimistic about what the union can do — mainly because without workers, the transition can’t happen.
“They’re trying to say we can’t fall under the GM master contract,” says Savage. “But if we don’t make batteries, these vehicles that they’re making in Michigan don’t move. They don’t go anywhere. So I’m hopeful for the future for the UAW that we have going on right now. We have a lot of strong people, and they’re fighting for us.”
A revelatory, inclusive history of the American labor movement from one of the bright young stars of labor journalism.
For a limited time, when you donate $20 or more to support In These Times, we'll send you a copy of Kim Kelly’s new book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor.
Inspirational, intersectional, and full of crucial lessons from the past, Fight Like Hell shows what is possible when the working class demands the dignity it has always deserved.
• A 2022 New Yorker Best Book of the Year• A 2022 Esquire Best Nonfiction Book of the Year• A 2022 BuzzFeed Book You’ll Love• A 2022 LitHub Favorite Book of the Year
“An electrifying, inspiring history of how countless American industries have exploited employees of marginalized backgrounds, and how these workers protected one another and fought back.” —BuzzFeed
Luis Feliz Leon is an associate editor and organizer at Labor Notes.A revelatory, inclusive history of the American labor movement from one of the bright young stars of labor journalism.donate $20 or more to support In These Times