On Labor Day, unions see opportunity in Hyundai’s EV ambitions in Georgia

Activists call for community benefit agreements for factories in Savannah, West Point and Montgomery, Alabama
ELLABELL, GA. - JUNE 5, 2023: Workers prepare to pour the concrete floor of the assembly building on the Hyundai Metaplant site, Monday, July 5, 2023, in Ellabell, Ga. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for the AJC

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for the AJC

ELLABELL, GA. - JUNE 5, 2023: Workers prepare to pour the concrete floor of the assembly building on the Hyundai Metaplant site, Monday, July 5, 2023, in Ellabell, Ga. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

SAVANNAH — A coalition of union groups have launched an ambitious effort to organize workers at Georgia’s largest economic development project — the Hyundai Motor Group electric vehicle and battery plant near the coast — as the Korean automaker races to open the factory in time to start production in 2025.

Hyundai is determined to begin production at its Metaplant as quickly as possible to meet accelerating consumer demand for plug-in vehicles and to take advantage of federal clean energy incentives tied to domestic EV production. The automaker announced an expansion of its onsite battery cell facility on Thursday, committing to 400 more jobs with plans for 8,500 total by 2031.

Unions and civic organizations, meanwhile, moved in late August to exploit that sense of urgency, calling on Hyundai to enact community benefits agreements for the Bryan County plant and for the automaker’s existing factories in Georgia and Alabama.

The renewed union push comes as state Republican leaders and the Biden administration jockey for credit for a green energy jobs boom that has turned Georgia, a key 2024 battleground state, into an epicenter for EV and battery production.

Just 5.4% of Georgia’s workforce is represented by unions, compared to 11.3% nationally. Georgia labor laws also discourage organizing, meaning the union push faces long odds in succeeding. But the nation and Georgia have seen an increase in organizing activity, and the Teamsters recently reached a landmark five-year deal for its 340,000 organized workers at Sandy Springs-based UPS.

The coalition calls itself The Alabama Coalition for Community Benefits, Georgia Labor and Community Allies. Comprised of 25 labor unions and community, environmental, immigrant and religious groups, the group sent a letter Aug. 27 outlining their request to Hyundai’s North American chief executive, José Muñoz.

Similar to union contracts, the requested community benefits agreements outline employee compensation and other working conditions practices and are enforceable through binding arbitration. None of Hyundai’s U.S. facilities are unionized, though the company has unionized workers in some overseas facilities.

The campaign’s aim is “to make sure folks have the fundamental right to organize and do so free of interference,” said Hannah Perkins, a spokeswoman for one of the letter signers, the Georgia AFL-CIO.

In addition to the $7.6 billion Metaplant, where more than 300,000 electric Hyundai, Kia and Genesis models are expected to roll off the assembly lines each year, Kia is expected to build EVs in West Point and Hyundai is investing in EV production in Montgomery, Alabama.

Hyundai released a statement in response to the coalition’s letter citing the “safety and well-being” of employees as a “top priority.” A Savannah economic development official went farther still. Trip Tollison with the Savannah Joint Development Authority questioned the criticism of Hyundai, referencing the automaker’s commitment to pay average salaries of at least $58,105.

“And that’s before benefits,” said Tollison, who noted the region’s average wage is $50,520. “I don’t understand the logic of coming after a company that is going to provide (8,500) jobs and all the supplier and ancillary benefits to the community.

“Labor is labor; you are going to get and attract what you pay for.”

‘A leader in Georgia’

Supporters of the coalition’s campaign argue labor practices are about more than wages. Those proponents include Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, who said Hyundai can be “a leader in Georgia” by enacting a community benefits agreement for the Metaplant.

“The employment experience is about working conditions; it’s about relationships; it’s about ensuring representation; it’s about some level of job security,” Johnson said. “It provides predictability to the workforce.”

Johnson’s stance mirrors that of federal government leaders, such as President Joe Biden, who Georgia AFL-CIO’s Perkins calls the “most pro-union president in history.” Hyundai and other automakers stand to benefit from the Democrats’ signature climate and health bill, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, and other EV production and clean energy initiatives.

Roughly $150 billion in federal investments are helping to fuel the EV manufacturing surge, but the government cannot force unions upon automakers.

The decision in a workplace is up to workers, but Biden wants the circumstances to encourage organized pro-union labor, said White House spokeswoman Robyn Patterson. “The administration is committed to taking every legal and appropriate step to ensure federal investments are leading to more good, union jobs,” she said.

Oscar Kwon, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor Group Metaplant America, speaks Monday, August 14, 2023, during a special ceremony at the Georgia Ports to mark the arrival of the first shipment of equipment for the Hyundai Metaplant. (Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News)

Credit: Savannah Morning News

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Credit: Savannah Morning News

Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republican leaders say business-friendly state policies lured Hyundai to Georgia.

Georgia is one of 27 states that have “right-to-work” laws that allow workers not to join or pay dues to unions that represent their workplaces.

Kemp issued a statement Tuesday criticizing “President Biden and his union donors” for “picking winners and losers” through the labor pressure campaign.

“Our state’s business-friendly environment is among the many reasons longtime, valued partners like Hyundai and Kia choose to call Georgia home and we stand by their commitment to create good-paying jobs that will improve the quality of life of hardworking Georgians in a multitude of burgeoning communities,” said Garrison Douglas, a Kemp spokesman.

Circumstances bring pressure

The Savannah area is home to just a handful of unions, and the only large-scale labor organization is the International Longshoreman’s Association, which provides much of the workforce at the Port of Savannah. Many local elected officials are “labor friendly,” noted Christi Hulme with the Savannah Regional Central Labor Council.

The environment gives her hope that Hyundai officials will be open to considering a community benefits agreement.

“The agreement is to make sure they fly right and do right,” she said. “The tax incentives Gov. Kemp awarded them opened the door for them. They need to be accountable to the community.”

Hyundai received $1.8 billion in state and local tax breaks and other perks to locate the Metaplant near Savannah. But the automaker’s incentive-laden deal to make Coastal Georgia an EV manufacturing hub isn’t the only reason labor unions and their coalition allies are targeting the company.

The Georgia AFL-CIO’s Perkins referenced “growing concerns about the way Hyundai treats workers,” issues echoed by Hulme. Perkins cited well-chronicled reports of a pending lawsuit over migrant labor practices at the Kia manufacturing center in West Point as well as alleged child labor violations at parts suppliers for Hyundai and Kia in Alabama. The underage worker claims prompted state and federal investigations.

Hulme expressed disappointment in how the bidding process for construction on the Metaplant site was handled and claims the methods limited union labor participation.

Hyundai is an employer with a “terrible track record of abusing vulnerable workers,” Perkins said.

“Hyundai’s investments can transform our communities but we want to make sure it works hand in hand with our communities,” she said.

In its statement, Hyundai, said, “We take reports of alleged violations very seriously, and we took swift action in response to reported incidents.”

Hulme, who is the coalition’s point person in Savannah, vowed to maintain pressure on Hyundai.

“We’re not going away,” she said.