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The UAW Extracts a Key Concession from GM

Here’s why the battery plant agreement matters.

Shawn Fain.
Heatmap Illustration/AFL-CIO/X

General Motors has agreed to let the United Auto Workers bargain on behalf of workers at its battery plants, union president Shawn Fain said in a livestream Friday afternoon. Fain also said that the strike, which counts around 25,000 UAW workers, would not expand, due to the progress that had been made so far.

“I was ready to call on one of GM’s most important and biggest plants to stand up,” Fain said, referring to the union’s strike strategy, where individual plant workforces walk out. “And it was that threat that brought them to the table.”

Fain was referring to an SUV manufacturing plant in Arlington, Texas. So far, the UAW has avoided striking the plants that produce the bulk of General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis’s full-size pickup trucks and SUVs, the companies' most profitable vehicles. Fain acknowledged this, saying “I’ve heard members who want to bring down the hammer strike on all the big truck plants and hit them where they hurt.” But he made it very clear that possibility remains a live option.

That the UAW’s big win was including battery manufacturing under its master agreement and that the way it won was by threatening to strike the factory that assembles Suburbans, Tahoes, Yukons, and Escalades speaks to the crossroads the union and the auto industry finds themselves at.

Even if the UAW and the Big Three recognize that their future lies in electrification, the union’s members and the automakers’ profits are intertwined with the popularity of massive gas-guzzlers.

“GM has agreed to lay the foundation for a just transition,” Fain said, referring to the battery agreement.

While the strike is over a set of “traditional” labor-relations issues like workweeks, pay, healthcare, and pensions, the UAW’s conflict with the Big Three and its wariness of the Biden administration is due to its apprehension over what an electrified auto sector looks like for its membership.

Not only are foreign and non-union domestic manufacturers expanding their EV production with the help of tax credits for buyers, the Big Three are also setting up joint battery ventures — often with federal backing — in states that are notoriously difficult to unionize. Even when Big Three battery plants do unionize, the companies have disputed their workers’ ability to join the UAW’s national contract.

General Motors has a battery plant operating in Ohio, with plans to build three more. In a statement to Reuters, GM did not address Fain’s claims that it had agreed to include battery plants in its agreement with the UAW.

When Ford got some $9.2 billion in Department of Energy financing to build battery plants in Kentucky and Tennessee, Fain blasted the Biden administration, saying, “Not only is the federal government not using its power to turn the tide – they’re actively funding the race to the bottom with billions in public money.” He asked, “Why is Joe Biden’s administration facilitating this corporate greed with taxpayer money?”

Ford said last month that it was pausing a battery plant it had planned in Michigan that had attracted fierce criticism from Republican elected officials for its proposed use of Chinese technology. Ford had agreed to a streamlined process for the plant’s workforce to unionize. The company’s chief exectuvive Jim Farley criticized the UAW, saying in a press conference last month, "Keep in mind these battery plants don’t exist yet. They’re mostly joint ventures. They’ve not been organized by the UAW yet because the workers haven’t been hired, and won't be for many years to come."

Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

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