Ford estimates that hundreds of IBEW members will be needed to get its 13-building campus fully up and running by the end of 2025, including this massive plant where batteries will be manufactured for Ford's all-electric F-150 Lightning pickup truck. Credit: BlueOval SK

Ford Motor Co.’s Blue Oval City project in western Tennessee is one of the biggest expansions of U.S. automaking in decades. It’s also turning into a golden opportunity for Memphis Local 474 to welcome hundreds of new men and women into the IBEW.

“We’ve recruited 700 new members since January 2023, and we still have open calls every day,” said Local 474 Business Manager Noel Sherman. “It’s been like drinking water from a fire hose.”

Blue Oval City, which broke ground in 2022, is consistently described in superlatives. Ford calls the $6 billion, six-square-mile electric vehicle and battery manufacturing campus its largest-ever undertaking. It’s been labeled the biggest commercial construction project in Tennessee history. And it’s said to be the largest project to land in Local 474’s jurisdiction since the IBEW approved its charter in 1906.

Ford estimates that 6,000 workers, including hundreds of IBEW members, will be required to get the 13-building campus fully up and running by the end of 2025. The centerpiece of this carbon-neutral project — built on a former cotton field in Stanton, about an hour’s drive northeast of Memphis — will be the Tennessee Electric Vehicle Center. There, Ford will begin producing the F-150 Lightning, the company’s first all-electric pickup truck, as well as the batteries that will power it.

There also will be an electric substation and rows of solar panels on site, as well as pre-assembly and painting shops, concrete plants, and water towers.

One big bonus with all this Blue Oval City work is that it’s providing the IBEW and other unions a solid foothold in Tennessee, where so-called right-to-work has been state law since 1947 and 70% of voters in 2022 approved adding the law’s language to the state constitution.

“It’s just an awesome opportunity for us to gain more market share,” Sherman said. “We had been sitting at 25% to 30%.”

Blue Oval City also represents a victory in Tennessee for the United Auto Workers, which is in the midst of its third try in 10 years to organize workers at the Volkswagen automaking plant in Chattanooga. Last fall, the UAW achieved significant pay and benefit gains for its members who work for Ford, General Motors and Stellantis following a six-week strike against the Big Three automakers. The union’s pact with Ford includes a strategy for allowing Blue Oval City’s workers to join the UAW and be covered under its master agreement with the company.

Also noteworthy is the fact that Blue Oval City is being built with a project labor agreement under the National Maintenance Agreements. Local 474 officials meet regularly with representatives from other unions working there, as well as Ford and Walbridge, the site’s general contractor.

“Our partnerships with contractors are like we’ve never seen before because the need is so great,” Sherman said. “It’s a great place to be in.”

Meanwhile, recruiting efforts for new IBEW members never stop, he said. Everyone at Local 474 understands that Blue Oval City is an opportunity to show Ford — and others — how the union and its signatory contractors are more than capable of meeting the automaker’s needs while offering near-immediate employment to a highly trained workforce, with wages and benefits better than those advertised by nonunion contractors. Deal-sweeteners include the Memphis area’s vibrant cultural scene, attractions, and reasonable cost of living.

The drastic growth in Local 474’s membership — in 2020, the figure hovered around 1,500 — is also helping to boost interest in its state-of-the-art JATC.

“We had our largest first-year apprenticeship class this past year,” Sherman said. With a similar influx of candidates expected for 2024, “we’re looking at acquiring more space and maybe doing some things a little differently.”

Although plenty of Local 474’s members are working a standard 40-hour schedule there, “lots of contractors are running 10 hours a day, seven days a week,” Sherman said.

There’s no end in sight for Blue Oval City after principal construction is finished. Scores of IBEW members will be needed to stick around to handle the maintenance work at the massive facility. And in the coming years, Ford is planning to produce other electric vehicles there, as well as their batteries.

There should be plenty of other job opportunities for workers who move to greater Memphis, with thousands of potential Ford-related supplier jobs in parts manufacturing and other logistics needs.

“The area’s gonna change, a lot,” Sherman said, adding that future developments are also in the early planning stages for more Stanton-area housing, hotels and restaurants.

“This is just a very exciting time for the IBEW in western Tennessee,” said Tenth District International Vice President Brent Hall, whose jurisdiction includes the state. “The Blue Oval City project can only help our whole union grow by allowing us to offer lots of opportunities for new and experienced members.

“It’s giving the Local 474 and Tenth District a chance to share with the rest of the union what this area has to offer,” Hall added.

Sherman agreed. “We’ve got this opportunity, and we’re going to do our very best.”