How the UAW union of one GM car factory is learning to make electric cars

UAW Local 5960 member Kimberly Fuhr inspects a Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle during vehicle production on Thursday, May 6, 2021 at the General Motors Orion assembly plant in Orion Township, Michigan.

Steve Vecht for Chevrolet

In 2015, Marland “Lanny” Brown learned how to build an all-electric car.

A member of United Auto Workers Local 5960, he was an hourly worker for General Motors for nearly 31 years, mostly at the Lake Orion, Michigan Auto Assembly Plant, when he joined the core team of 15 Local 5960 employees sent to the GM Technical Center in Incheon, South Korea to learn how to assemble the Chevrolet Bolt EV .

plant Orion, which has been operating since 1983, began the transition from the production of various internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to electric vehicles. After retraining, a popular term for upskilling, Brown and his team returned to Orion and over the course of several months trained about 1,000 other assemblers on both subtle and major differences in building an electric vehicle. Part of the change in worker responsibilities was to retool the body shop and engine line to accommodate components and manufacturing processes other than electric vehicles.

While much of the assembly of an electric vehicle is similar to that of an ICE car, such as installing doors, windows, tires, brakes, seats, and dashboards, according to Brown, the powertrain, which consists of an engine and transmission, is noticeably different. Instead of a gasoline engine and multi-speed transmission, there is a lithium-ion battery mounted under the cab that powers the zero-emissions electric motor and single-speed transmission. “Going down the engine line, instead of a carburetor, we put a power distribution unit,” Brown said, giving one example.

The first Bolts began rolling out in October 2016, marking GM’s initial foray into an all-electric vehicle (the discontinued Chevy Volt was a plug-in hybrid) and long before the automaker announced in 2021 that it would only produce electric vehicles. 2035. However, over the next three years, the Orion plant also continued to produce two ICE vehicles – the Chevy Sonic and the Buick Verano – before switching exclusively to the Bolt in 2020 and then adding the Bolt EUV (electric SUV) in 2021.

In the industry, this is what the industry calls slow assembly, said Jack Hund, a launch manager at Orion, who has overseen the introduction of numerous new models at various GM plants in his 23 years with the company. “We’ve started rolling out Bolt on the assembly line incrementally,” he said, a process that could take up to a year while the bugs are ironed out. “We know that things won’t go so smoothly the first time.”

“Gradually we built more and more [EV] units,” Hund said. “People on the line are so accustomed to ICE cars that it took them a little while to realize it. They needed to apply a different set of skills to an electric car,” such as learning the nuances of new torque tools to attach parts to a car with a certain amount of force.

“Throughout my career in the ICE environment, a big change has been with high voltage electrical cabling,” Brown said. Special training is required for all assemblers on how to safely handle these potentially hazardous compounds, he said. Essentially, “it takes more electricians to build an electric car than mechanics,” Brown said.

In addition to on-the-job retraining, GM is providing some workers with a virtual component. “We have a system in which you sit at a computer and perform elements of work in [a prescribed] Reuben Jones, Orion plant manager, said. “They get thought representatives to help them when they get to the line. Creating vehicles at the right level of quality and in a safe way is extremely important. Virtual learning has reached a new level. This saves time, money and helps us get the product to market faster.”

Another outreach program is being held at GM’s Technical Training University (TCU) in nearby Warren, Michigan. The newly upgraded center houses manufacturing labs that simulate the stages of an assembly line, including robotics and sheet metal production. In addition to this technical training, “we are intertwining what we now call human skills, which include listening, teamwork, and critical thinking skills,” said Kimberly Dungy, head of global technology learning at TCU.

As the retraining of UAW workers continues during the Big Three’s steady transition to electric vehicles, a related issue is raising the concerns of the union. Because electric vehicles have fewer parts than ICE vehicles, then-Volkswagen Group CEO Herbert Diess said in 2019, building EV requires about 30% less effortwhich means job cuts. While this figure has been repeated by other leaders and researchers, there has been no empirical research to support this claim. For its part, the UAW continues to study the matter and remain vigilant.

The UAW’s current contracts with GM, Ford and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler), ratified in September 2019, are helping to protect workers in assembly plants like Orion who are moving from ICE production to electric vehicle production. Essentially, the UAW and each of the companies are negotiating major EV-related investments in existing UAW-represented facilities to keep jobs in those locations and offer opportunities for retraining.

In September interview with The Washington PostGM CEO Mary Barra addressed the issue of EV jobs, stating that “We are allocating EVs or EV components to our existing service area. So that’s what we’ll continue to do. This advantage is not only because of the labor force, it is also an advantage because we have the opportunity.”

“Historically, there has always been concern about job losses, but since electric vehicles have made it into the Big Three [assembly plants]we understand more about them,” said David Michael, public relations coordinator for UAW Local 5960. According to him, not a single job has been lost at Orion as a result of the production of electric vehicles, and in fact “we are seeing the addition of jobs. “

Asked about the fate of workers whose work was related to ICE vehicles and is no longer needed, Michael said that they “are now either producing components for electric vehicles, transmissions, or doing alternative work of assembling electric vehicles. assembly line where [ICE] the engines have failed and now they have electric transmissions.”

The likelihood of continued job retention and hiring at Orion is promising following the announcement earlier this month that GM increase bolt production from nearly 44,000 vehicles this year to over 70,000 in 2023. While the overall U.S. electric vehicle market is still only about 5% of new car sales, it is growing rapidly, among the 1.65 million electric vehicles that were sold in the first nine months. Bolt accounted for over 22,000 people in 2022.

General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra announces a $300 million investment in GM’s Orion assembly plant for electric and self-driving vehicles at the Orion Assembly Plant on March 22, 2019 in Lake Orion, Michigan.

Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

However, another major upgrade is planned for the Orion assembly plant. GM introduced in January that he is investing $4 billion to retool the plant again, this time to produce all-electric Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks to compete with the Ford F-150 Lightning, the EV version of a perennial bestseller. in the US As for the future of the Bolt, GM hasn’t confirmed anything other than the fact that its production will continue while the facility is being retooled for electric pickups.

The transition to EV pickups will begin in 2024 and is expected to create more than 2,350 new jobs at the Orion and retain about 1,000 current jobs when the plant reaches full capacity, GM said. The new jobs at Orion will be filled by both employees transferred to GM and new hires, GM said.

This latest transition will require another round of retraining of the Orion workforce. “We have a core team working on electric pickups interacting with engineers and suppliers to see how the vehicles will be built,” GM’s Tom Wickham, senior manager of manufacturing communications at Orion, said in an email. “As with previous launches, the core team will eventually help train the rest of the Orion team before we begin regular production of the Silverado and Sierra electric vehicles.”

GM also announced that, as part of Ultium Cells’ joint venture with South Korea’s LG Energy Solution to produce batteries for electric vehicles, the companies will invest $2.6 billion to build a third plant in Lansing, Michigan, which is expected to produce more than 1,700 new batteries. jobs when the plant is running at full capacity.

This raises the burning question of whether these battery manufacturing jobs, as well as others related to making parts for electric vehicles, will be represented by the UAW, and if so, at what wage rate. In July, Bloomberg reported that at the existing Ultium Cells plant in Lordstown, Ohio, workers earn about $22 an hour, compared to $32 an hour for a traditional UAW assembler. Ultium stated that it “respects the right of workers to unionize and the efforts of the UAW or any other union to organize battery manufacturing workers at our manufacturing sites.” Reuters.

“One of the things I’ve noticed is that some employers in [auto] the industry is going to use this shift [to EVs] as an opportunity to try to drive down wages, benefits and job quality,” said Gordon Lafer, director of the Center for Labor Education and Research at the University of Oregon at Eugene. “It’s really unclear what the quality of these jobs will be. .”

Concern about the impact of electric vehicles on jobs and facilities was a contentious issue during contract negotiations between GM and the UAW in 2019 that broke down, leading to a six-week UAW strike at GM factories. The shutdown cost GM nearly $2 billion in lost production and nearly $1 billion in employee salaries. However, both sides agreed to convert GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant, which was scheduled to close, to produce electric vehicles. Today, the facility, known as Factory ZERO, manufactures the Silverado and Sierra electric pickups, as well as the electric Hummer.

The UAW’s contract with GM expires next year, and the production of electric vehicles, batteries and related components is likely to be at stake again. “This will certainly be the focal point of these negotiations,” Michael said. “UAW leadership is focused on electric vehicles and where this work will go. We have a union and worker friendly president. [Biden] which is passing a great piece of legislation that has facilitated the transition of automakers to electric vehicles, so we are going to do our best to use all the jobs in the United States.”

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