GM’s Gerald Johnson: Preparing for EV transition, UAW talks

FLINT, Mich. — As General Motors ramps up electric vehicle production over the next several years, the automaker is working to show employees that they have a role in the EV future, its top manufacturing executive said.

At the same time, the company plans to add electric vehicle capacity by repurposing existing plants, including turning some into EV-only factories and adding EVs alongside gasoline-vehicle assembly lines at others, said Gerald Johnson, GM’s executive vice president of global manufacturing and sustainability.

EV production capacity will rise when GM retools its Orion Assembly plant in Michigan to build electric pickups after production of the Chevrolet Bolt EV and EUV ends this year. GM plans to bring Orion back online in the first quarter of 2025, he said.

The automaker also will negotiate a new contract with the UAW this year. It will be the first round of talks involving new union leaders directly elected by membership and the first time in decades when contracts with GM’s U.S. and Canadian unions are up for renewal together.

“Two things that we’re very focused on: One is utilizing our assets, and the other is making sure that we bring all of our employees with us on the transition,” Johnson said. “That’ll look different for every facility. But that’s still the strategy that we’re working to and we’ll keep working to as we go through this transformation.”

Johnson, 60, spoke with Staff Reporter Lindsay VanHulle about balancing combustion vehicles and EVs, and the upcoming UAW contract talks. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: How does GM navigate building both internal combustion vehicles and EVs?

A: We can do more than one thing. We’ve produced multiple engines and transmissions throughout our history. Our engineering capacity is well able to do both, and we are doing both and we plan to continue to do both throughout the balance of this decade. So as we raise our electrification this year, in between now and 2025 where we’re saying we’re going to have over 1 million units produced, we can still produce millions of ICE trucks.

How does GM balance where to direct investments to support the internal combustion and EV directions? Is the approach going forward to update or convert plants rather than build a new one?

Absolutely. Just a few months back, we were in Toledo. Toledo builds transmissions for us today. We were down there announcing that they would also be building EV drive units for us. That facility will do both. And so again, sometimes we can integrate both into one. Sometimes we dedicate solely one or the other. But across our footprint, yes, it is our goal to utilize all of our assets efficiently as we make the transformation.

How do you get buy-in from the work force in the transition?

For employees, the main concern is “What will my role be in the future?” And so we try and communicate where we’re at. When I was in Toledo and we were talking about bringing drive units to Toledo, that gave them a sense of comfort that they, too, could go with either ICE and EV and the bandwidth of change that’ll happen over the next seven to eight years. For our employees, it’s really “How does this fit right now?” So as quickly as we can, as soon as we understand it, like here in Flint, we want to help people understand: “This is what your future looks like at this facility. And this is what we see. And this is how we’re investing.” And the proof point is, quite frankly, when you say we’re investing $788 million, people go, “Oh, OK, we’re committed, we’re serious.” And we are.

Have you heard concerns that building EVs may not require as many workers as building an internal combustion vehicle?

Of course, I’ve heard the concern. But as we continue to do our analysis, we see the employee base required to build an EV to be very similar to what it takes to build a comparable ICE product for the same market segment. So we think that we are safe in saying that we want to bring our employees with us and that we’ll be able to do that, because every EV still has doors, a windshield, seats, dash. It just has a battery instead of an engine.

The skills are similar enough that employees who have built ICE vehicles for decades will be able to convert fairly easily to building EVs?

In rough math, 80 percent of the build process is common. So 80 percent of what our people are capable and skilled at doing today is the same kind of skills that we’re going to need tomorrow. And where we need additional skills, as we have in the past, we train and prepare our work force for that change.

What kind of training is needed?

Training is always ongoing because even if I take an old ICE vehicle and replace it, how that vehicle goes together is different. I have to train that employee on those differences. They may understand how to run screws and how to place parts, etc., but it’s going to be a different build process.

There’s legitimate new pieces, but our work force has learned new things for 100 years. It is not new to learn how to do something different in this space. We have flexible skilled employees. And there’s nothing more flexible than a human being. If you can teach them, show them, train them, they’ll do well with it. That’s exactly what we have done and intend to do.

There’s been a change in leadership at the UAW. How is GM approaching bargaining this year with new leadership?

We get to know each other. We get to understand each other, so that we can solve the problems that need to be solved.

We’ve been trying to work from a position of no surprises. So we use those as intentional moments for us to interact and talk about the business, talk about the market, talk about what we’re seeing. They get to talk about what they’re seeing, as well, because they have a research team as much as we do. And we have those conversations openly. So that hopefully we get to know each other and know what’s important to each other, and then start to work on things.

How might this bargaining cycle compare with the last one in 2019?

We got new players. We got a new industry. We got EV transformation. We got a lot of new elements to talk about and think through. That’s what will dominate the difference between one or the other.

How is GM preparing to negotiate a new contract with Unifor in Canada simultaneously with the UAW in the U.S. for the first time?

We have to double up the resources at one time so we can have conversations in Canada with Unifor while we’re doing the same thing here with the UAW, but again, it’s not significantly different. We will discuss with Unifor things important to Unifor, we’ll discuss with the UAW things that are important to the UAW, and collectively we’ll figure out how to move forward.

The UAW struck GM in 2019 during contract talks. Is GM preparing for the possibility of a strike?

The better question is, how do we prepare not to have a strike? How do we have the right conversations? How do we get the right issues on the table? How do we find the right compromises? How do we do the right problem solving? How do we do it early enough and fast enough so that you don’t have a strike? A strike is just another way of having a conversation that you should have had or could have before.

Is there any kind of contingency plan in the event that it happens?

We will always strategize all the scenarios and consider how we prepare ourselves for any scenario. That’s not new. We do that every time we’re in a negotiating season. But again, the point of negotiations is to understand the problems and solve the problems. And that’s where we want to put all of our energy.

How is GM thinking about balancing demand and supply coming out of the pandemic and supply constraints?

We’ve always had to do that balancing. But I tell you, one of the things that I think we learned coming out of the pandemic is that we can do it more finitely, or in greater detail, that allows us to operate with lower inventory than we did prior to COVID. And so we are operating — the industry, quite frankly, is operating — at a lower inventory level coming out of COVID. And I think that’s going to be the new norm because we’re able to manage deeper into our pipeline.

We put systems and processes in place to be able to do that while we were going through COVID because it was necessary. We plan to keep those systems in place so we can maintain a good balance, a better balance, and keep our inventory levels down and maintain discipline.

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