Two adjacent Ohio plants — one new, one closed — could herald the future of the U.S. auto industry.

Lordstown, Ohio

The massive Lordstown assembly plant in Ohio, about the size of the Pentagon, more than 50 years old and almost empty, is a reminder of the former power of both GM and the United Auto Workers union. A new, smaller, electric vehicle battery plant next door could be the future for both the company and the union.

The Lordstown plant opened in 1966; GM closed it just months before its contract with the UAW expired in 2019. That closure, along with three other U.S. plants, helped spark a six-week strike at the country’s largest automaker. The UAW won many of its negotiating goals with that strike, including new life for one of those four stricken plants, which today builds electric vehicles. But Lordstown was left without new vehicles to build.

“It’s a blight on this city. It would be a blight on any community,” said David Green. He has worked in Lordstown for 24 years and is now the union’s regional director for Ohio and Indiana.

Less than a month after the settlement with the union, GM announced the sale of the plant to the emerging electric truck manufacturer, Lordstown Motors. That company made a few dozen trucks and a few hundred million dollars in losses. It filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

Today the factory is owned by Foxconn, the contract manufacturer known for building iPhones, which plans to make electric vehicles for another startup, Fisker, starting in 2025. It remains to be seen whether this will happen.

Chris Isidore/CNN

Former General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

The plant dwarfed its namesake city of 3,000 people. The union says that in the 1970s it employed up to 15,000 hourly workers. In 2016, nearly 4,000 people worked there. East Ohio Road parallels the huge plant for about a mile.

But GM hasn’t disappeared from the region — not completely.

The automaker still has a presence in Lordstown with partial ownership of an electric vehicle battery plant, key to its plans to fully switch from internal combustion vehicles to electric vehicles by the middle of the next decade.

If the UAW is to remain a force in the auto industry, it will need to win contracts for electric vehicle workers.

The union has had some successes at the battery plant, from winning an organizational vote to increasing bonuses for workers. Some former Lordstown workers helped secure this latest pay increase.

“I thought I was going to retire from Lordstown,” said Eric Manaro, a member of the negotiating team and a Lordstown veteran. When he got the job at the factory where his father worked in 2008, “I thought I had won the lottery.”

In 2019, GM formed a joint venture with Korean manufacturer LG to build the massive batteries that power electric vehicles. The Ultium Cells joint venture is key to GM’s plans to transition to an all-electric vehicle lineup by 2035, even though electric vehicles make up only a small portion of its sales today.

The Ultium plant, just over a third the size of the shuttered Lordstown plant, began building batteries last August. In December, nearly 900 hourly employees voted overwhelmingly to join the UAW. (It now employs 1,100 hourly workers.)

Chris Isidore/CNN

The Ultium Cells factory is located next to the former Lordstown Assembly plant that once dominated the Ohio city.

But this union membership doesn’t mean Ultium workers make the same as UAW members do at assembly or engine plants run by GM, Ford or Stellantis, the unionized “Big Three” automakers. Most of the union’s 145,000 members make $32.32 an hour.

When Ultium opened, the starting wage was $16.50 an hour. Although the union persuaded Ultium to agree last month to raise wages of between $3 and $4 an hour, the new wage of $20.50 an hour is still about 36% less than the wages of veteran auto workers at the Big Three’s plants.

UAW leadership at the plant says the increase is just the first step. Its goal is to one day include plant members in GM’s national labor agreement. But they won’t know when that will happen.

“Everyone realizes that’s a lot less than that salary now,” Manaro said. “It’s not the be-all and end-all of wages at this point.”

But he said workers are happy with the increase, even if they see it as just a first step. They voted 97% in favor of ratifying the deal.

“Members are looking for at least an extra $600 a month. Who wouldn’t want that?,” Manaro said.

Many of the workers in Lordstown were second- and even third-generation auto workers there.

Justin Brown’s father worked at the Lordstown plant for nearly 50 years. Brown for 10 years. He moved to the GM plant in Missouri in hopes of reopening Lordstown soon. He thought the 2019 strike would save the plant. He never had to go back.

“I’m grateful to have a job, but I miss my family,” he said during a trip back to visit his parents last month. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think they need me.”

Manaro and others at Ultium say about 20% of the workers there are former Lordstown employees. Some Ultium workers said they took the low-paying job with the expectation that they would one day earn GM-level pay.

George Goranitz moved to the General Motors plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, when Lordstown closed, but he felt homesick and tired of making the nine-hour drive to and from his new plant to see his family and friends on weekends.

Chris Isidore/CNN

The Ultium Cells Ohio plant, which produces batteries for General Motors’ electric vehicles, has more than 1,000 workers today.

“I wasn’t happy in Spring Hill on my own,” he said.

So he left GM and returned to Lordstown, where he took a series of jobs including as a correctional officer. He jumped at the chance to get a job at Ultium even though it paid less than some of the other jobs available. That’s because he expects Ultium to eventually pay GM-level wages.

“Just like at GM, everyone (at Ultium) wants to get their foot in the door,” he said.

But it’s not clear whether GM would be able to compete with other automakers if it paid battery plant employees what assembly line workers get.

Nonunion automakers are building or planning dozens of their own electric vehicle battery factories, most of them spread across the overwhelmingly nonunion South.

The UAW is now seeking at least a 40% pay increase in contract negotiations with GM, Ford and Stellantis. The contract expires at 11:59 p.m. Thursday, and the union said it would go on strike against any company that does not reach an agreement before that time.

Ultium factory workers aren’t at the table for those talks — but they are somewhat part of the discussion: The Big Three’s plans to transition to electric vehicles are a major sticking point.

Electric cars have much fewer parts compared to combustion engines. Fewer parts means less labor – about 30% less.

Many of the jobs lost will be in engine and transmission plants owned by companies whose workers are included in existing employment contracts. But to build electric cars, GM, Ford and Stellantis have formed joint ventures, such as Ultium, with foreign battery companies; These employees will not work directly for unionized automakers. There are nine More of these factories, linked to joint ventures of the Big Three companies, are scheduled to open in the next few years.

The union says it demands a “fair transition” from gas-powered vehicles to electric vehicles as part of any contract. For the union, that means much higher wages at battery plants and the right for workers who lose jobs at existing plants to move to jobs at the battery plant.

It remains to be seen whether the Union is able to win these guarantees.

Ultium autoworkers hope the battery plant will be so successful that it leads General Motors to reopen Lordstown and build electric vehicles there itself. But despite that, they haven’t given up hope that they can hold off the electric vehicle wave for a while longer, said David Green, regional director of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

“I think GM knows the internal combustion engine isn’t going anywhere anytime soon,” he said.

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