(NEW YORK) — Lordstown, Ohio, has been a crucial and valued site in the automotive industry, and now it is at the crossroads of what could be a major labor movement.
The 25-square-mile town was formally the site of a General Motors plant that employed thousands of unionized workers.
Last fall, a new plant focused on making electric vehicle batteries opened and hired many of the former GM workers, but those employees said their new positions, which were not unionized over a technicality, are a far cry from their previous positions.
Low pay, safety concerns, and other issues prompted many of the Lordstown Ultium Cells plant workers to fight for their benefits, and many say they are gearing up for an uphill battle.
“There’s a real push right now towards electric vehicles. We want to set the standard right here in Lordstown, Ohio,” David Green, one of the plant’s workers and union members, told ABC News Live.
Ultium Cells, a joint venture between GM and LG Electronics, will be producing the lithium-ion battery cells that will be used in electric vehicles as car manufacturers and the federal government push for more green offerings in the automotive industry.
Many long-time Lordstown factory workers who spent years at the GM plant applied and were given jobs at the Ultium plant, but they were not allowed to carry over their previous United Auto Workers union membership since the company was considered a parts supplier.
Mike Derose, an Ultium worker, told ABC News that a material worker at the plant was paid at the lowest rate of $15 an hour at first but that was bumped up to $20 an hour.
“That same type of person could be making closer to $30 if they were in a big three plant,” he said.
Dave Dellick, an Ultium worker and father of three, told ABC News that he had to take a second job because the plant’s $16.50 an-hour salary was not enough to provide for his family.
“When I applied to Ultium they said it’s going to be the next wave, the …, future going forward of batteries, electric vehicles,” he said. “So I’m thinking this could be a job I can retire from.”
In addition to the lower pay, workers also had safety concerns.
David Green, a plant worker, claimed to ABC News that there are currently no Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations concerning certain chemicals that are used in EV battery production.
“The science hasn’t even caught up to the chemicals,” he said.
OSHA told ABC News that the plant currently has five open inspections.
Ultium Cells told ABC News in a statement, “The safety and well-being of our team members is our top priority. Ultium Cells follows all federal, state and local requirements for workplace and environmental safety, including those related to the handling of chemical materials.”
The frustrations among the workers ended with the majority of them voting to unionize with the United Autoworkers Union last December. They are the first EV battery plant in the country to successfully unionize.
The workers are currently in negotiations with the UAW and the plant’s management for the exact details of their contract, but those months of back and forth have been tough for some workers.
Dellick said several of his co-workers have quit their jobs at the plant in the last few months because of the low pay.
“Eventually they came to an agreement,” he said. “I think I almost got [a] $5 [an hour raise], so I’m up to $23 [an hour] now, but yeah, it’s been a kind of a long up-road climb like a mountain climb.”
GM said in a statement that it “is confident that Ultium Cells, and the UAW, will work in good faith to reach a reasonable agreement that is appropriate for battery supply operations.”
The Ultium workers’ efforts gained national attention last month when the Biden Administration and Dept. of Energy announced a $15.5 billion funding package focused on “retooling existing factories for the transition to electric vehicles – supporting good jobs and a just transition to EVs.”
The Ultium workers have support from Sen. Sherrod Brown.
“We have a tradition of these contracts creating middle-class wages and giving families a middle-class lifestyle, and they have taken that away because of bad trade agreements and other things,” Brown told ABC News. “We continue to fight for that disagreement in Lordstown.”
The plant workers said they hope their united stance can be a model for other factories that are transitioning to new products and technologies.
“The company is going to fight back…and we’ve got to just we’ve got to stand together and keep fighting,” George Goranitis, an Ultium plant worker, told ABC News.
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