Union workers at a General Motors electric vehicle plant have been complaining of safety issues.
Workers at a GM Ultium electric vehicle plant confronted caught a defective battery on fire late last month, reported the Financial Times.
According to the fire department in Lordstown, Ohio, the factory workers were able to put it out, with two people being sent to the hospital for smoke inhalation.
The recent fire has caused further tension to an already poor relationship between the plant’s workers and its managers.
Ninety-eight percent of employees at the Lordstown plant voted to join the United Auto Workers (UAW) last December, becoming the first American EV battery factory to vote in favor of union representation.
The UAW and Ultium Cells, which are jointly owned by GM and South Korea’s LG Energy Solution, are currently negotiating a labor contract after the workers voted to organize.
GM had earlier partnered with LG to obtain much-needed expertise to make EV batteries, Gerald Johnson, GM’s executive vice president of global manufacturing, told Bloomberg in an interview last month.
The union is also pushing for a four-year agreement with GM, Ford, and Stellantis to cover workers at the eight other battery factories owned or planned by the automakers.
UAW President Shawn Fain believes that GM is using joint-venture structures to avoid applying standard union rules and pay workers less.
The UAW has labor agreements with the Big Three Detroit automakers, which do not extend to their electric-battery plants, partially due to being joint ventures involving outside partners.
The current negotiations are now attracting attention because they are likely to set a far-reaching pattern for how the automakers will treat their EV battery factory employees.
Workers and management have been battling over wages for months as the UAW demands better safety protections following multiple accidents at the Ultium plant.
“It’s not just the low pay, these jobs are often dangerous,” Fain said in a July 5 video, adding, “This is our defining moment. It’s time to build an EV industry that puts workers first.”
GM and Ultium pay their workers $22 maximum an hour, which is a similar rate to other auto supply factories, but autoworkers who make engines are often paid more than $30 an hour.
Fain is demanding that Ultium enter into a master-labor agreement similar to those with the major Detroit automakers.
Employees at the Ohio battery plant argued that since batteries are essential to EV production, they should be paid a similar amount as auto assembly line workers.
Battery manufacturing plants tend to operate more like chemical factories compared to auto factories, where injuries are more likely to be from machinery accidents or from repetitive tasks.
A contractor at the Ultium plant last year was crushed by an automated crane while working inside the plant and suffered serious injuries, which later proved fatal, Travis Eastham, the local fire-station chief, told Bloomberg.
In another incident, the autoworkers union said that an employee, Gavin Currey, was sprayed with toxic gas in early May while working in an area that extracts a poisonous electrolyte compound from battery cells.
Currey reported that he experienced minor burns to his face, and a UAW official said he was unable to work for three days.
Six battery factory workers in the same department refused to work until the company installed a safety shower in their work area but were suspended.
Ultium said they could return to work and move to a different area, according to a document reviewed by Bloomberg.
A union official noted a shower has been installed, and two of the workers have gone returned to work.
An Ultium spokesperson, Dallis Tripoulas, told Bloomberg that the company had an agreement with the six workers to return to work but would not say if they returned.
“Safety is a top priority each day,” said Tripoulas in response to the union’s allegations and explained that the plant now has four union members as safety representatives.
Another worker, Mandy McCoy, told the UAW that she saw a colleague put toxic waste in a garbage can, which then emitted fumes that sickened her and a coworker, sending them both to the hospital.
Tripoulas told Bloomberg that the company refused to comment on specific incidents or findings by the UAW.
The UAW claimed that a total of 22 workers suffered injuries at the plant and lost a total of 200 days of work.
Bloomberg also reported that Ultium had paid $68,000 in fines in 2022 to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, twice what SK Battery paid out over the same period for its plant in Georgia with Hyundai.
The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act included incentives to encourage domestic EV production, leading several automakers to construct battery factories in the United States.
This has led to a massive build-up of America’s EV industry and will require thousands of new workers.
Automakers and electric battery manufacturers are also under pressure to control labor costs as they expand.
GM said it expects to benefit from $300 million in federal tax credits to build EVs this year and aims to build 1 million cars a year by 2025, which could earn the company between $3.5 billion and $5.5 billion in revenue.
“A just transition must include standards for our members and future workers,” Fain said, explaining that the workers demand their cut.
Fain stated that otherwise, taxpayers will continue to “funnel over $1 billion a year to Ultium despite their paying poverty wages and having horrifying health and safety conditions.”
As automakers and their partners deliberate over union contracts over the next few months, the risks of a strike rise even further.
According to an analysis by John Murphy, a Bank of America analyst, the chance of a strike targeting one of the three auto giants and a possibility of another strike at another sits at about 90 percent.
He believes that the new labor deal with the automakers would probably push labor costs up by 30 percent.
Still, Ultium Vice President of Operations, Tom Gallagher, wrote in a July 2 editorial in the Tribune Chronicle that he was “excited” the UAW had organized the Ultium plant and that he looked forward to working with them.
“A competitive, forward-thinking collective bargaining agreement can provide a model for unionization of other US battery cell manufacturing plants and extended electric vehicle supply chain,” he wrote.
The Epoch Times reached out to the UAW and GM for comment.
Reuters contributed to this report.