The Electrical Worker online
May 2024

'Never Give Up': Toyota Expansion Has N.C. Local Going All Out to Organize
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The leaders of Greensboro, N.C., Local 342 are suiting up for what could be 10-fold membership growth in the coming years, now that Toyota has announced a plan to nearly quadruple its battery manufacturing footprint in the state's Piedmont Triad area.

"We're doing all we can to organize," said Alvin Warwick, business manager of the local, which in recent years has averaged 100 to 150 members.

In 2021, Toyota announced its first investment in facilities to develop and manufacture lithium ion batteries for the company's all-electric, plug-in hybrid electric and hybrid gas-electric vehicles, promising to bring more than 1,700 jobs to the rural community of Liberty, about a half-hour south of Greensboro.

Whether any of those jobs would be union jobs was in question. While Toyota's assembly line workers in the U.S. are not unionized, Warwick — also president of North Carolina's Construction and Building Trades Council — noted that the company had negotiated a project labor agreement with union building trades workers at its plant near Huntsville, Alabama.

The question was soon answered. "They decided to come to North Carolina and try building here without a PLA," Warwick said.

The first two Toyota buildings at the Liberty site were built nonunion, although Local 342 electricians managed to carve out some contract power equipment work there.

Then last fall, Toyota announced another investment: this time, $8 billion more to construct five additional plants.

Soon afterward, Toyota signed an agreement to work with IBEW signatory contractor Slifco Electric to perform work on the expansion. It wasn't a PLA, but it was positive news.

"They're proud to be a good IBEW contractor," Warwick said. "They work well with us."

Toyota estimates that this buildup plan will raise its workforce needs to more than 5,100. Nearly 1,100 of those will be journeyman wiremen, Warwick said, with 800 urgently needed by August.

"Slifco came here and greased the wheels. We got the calls filled to where [Toyota] saw we could man the project," Warwick said. "We have 350 to 400 people on the project now. It's ever-growing."

Local 342 continues to add members and fill calls on the project, which is running six 10-hour shifts, Monday through Saturday, Warwick said. While a PLA would be preferable, the local's electricians have access to solid hourly rates with daily incentive pay and access to good health, pension and vacation benefits.

Completing work on the Toyota buildout will require an additional 800 to 1,000 electricians over the next 10 years, Warwick said, and hundreds more IBEW members could be needed for ongoing maintenance work. Work for each building is bid separately.

"Local people are getting these jobs," Warwick said. "It sets this local on a path for growth. We're certain to grow for an extended period."

It also grows Local 342's need for organizers, who could face a few challenges, he said. For one thing: "The people we're organizing haven't been interested in the bigger jobs."

Local 342, though, has a "never give up" attitude, Warwick said: "It just takes a little while moving people."

Also, North Carolina is a so-called right-to-work state, which means workers covered by a union can refuse to pay their fair share toward the costs of representation and contract negotiations while enjoying the benefits. That complicates organizing for everyone, said Warwick, who estimates that there are hundreds of nonunion electricians within the local's jurisdiction.

"There's an opportunity for them to learn what it should be like on a construction job," he said. "There's nothing better than hearing someone on a jobsite say, 'I didn't know it could be like this.'"

The potential to get work on the Toyota project also has understandably sparked growing interest in apprenticeships, he said, noting that the Carolinas Electrical Area Wide JATC has almost 100 apprentices enrolled.

"There's enough work to graduate every one of them," said Warwick, who believes that enrollment figure could double by the end of the year. "Everyone's looking for apprenticeships, and we keep feeding the beast."

Warwick praised Tenth District International Vice President Brent Hall and State Organizing Coordinator Matt Ruff for their support. "When everything tightened up, they rolled up their sleeves and made sure they could be available when we needed them," Warwick said.

The business manager also noted how the work outlook is booming in the Triad, from multibillion-dollar investments not only in electrical vehicle manufacturing but also in the production of microchips and steel. Naturally, the IBEW wants to capture as much of that as possible, along with future work on the grid, electric vehicle charging stations and the next wave of data center work.

"There's a lot of work going on in this growing area," he said. "We're slowly but surely taking that workforce. We want to control the market."


Greensboro, N.C., Local 342 needs hundreds of new members to construct and maintain five massive Toyota EV battery facilities near the two pictured.

Credit: Toyota