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Machinists union is trying to organize workers inside the Rivian EV plant

Rivian workers work on a stamping project
Ryan Denham
The electric automaker Rivian has around 8,000 workers in Normal. It's the second-largest employer in McLean County, behind only State Farm.

As the United Auto Workers strike against the Big Three continues, another union is making a run at organizing inside Rivian’s electric-vehicle manufacturing plant in Normal.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), aka Machinists, have been doing organizing work at Rivian for most of this year, said IAM regional organizer Bob Beloit. They have an office in Bloomington and have been meeting with Rivian workers, doing house calls and targeting workers with Facebook ads, emails, and texts, according to IAM.

“Rivian is a good company. They make a good product, and I’m really proud to working on this, because it’s new technology. We’ve got to take care of our environment. We’ve gotta do better than the generations before us. And electric cars are the way of the future,” Beloit told WGLT. “And there are some things that Rivian can be doing better to retain employees.”

Right now, Beloit said IAM is listening to employees. If they don’t want a union, IAM won’t force it on them, he said.

But unions – and the collective bargaining agreements they negotiate – lead to a better class of employee who cares more about the end product, making companies more profitable, he argued.

“They (Rivian) have a mission statement that’s very warm and fuzzy and it’s attractive to the younger generation today. And they come to work wanting to be part of almost like a movement, instead of a job. And the second day on the job they realize that was all just print in an employee handbook and it means nothing. And they start losing their desire to be there every day. With a contract, that employee handbook goes from a ‘Feel good, we might give you this, but we don’t have to’ to ‘This is what you’re getting, and it’s in writing, and it’s legally backed up.’”

IAM has around 600,000 active and retired members, including “tens of thousands of automotive technicians.” The name “Machinists” is a bit of a misnomer; they represent workers in aerospace, defense, airlines, automotive, railroad, transit, healthcare, and other industries. There are florists, gunsmiths, paralegals and automotive technicians all in the same union, said Beloit.

“If we can do everything from soups to spaceships, I think we can handle electric cars,” Beloit said.

Rivian has around 8,000 workers in Normal. It's rapidly become McLean County's second-largest employer, behind only State Farm.

The IAM is now collecting signed authorization cards from Rivian workers. If at least 30% of workers sign cards or a petition saying they want a union, the National Labor Relations Board will conduct an election. If a majority choose the union, the NLRB will certify the union for collective bargaining. Alternatively, Rivian could voluntarily recognize the union, without an election. Or the whole thing could fizzle out.

Rivian issued this response Tuesday to WGLT’s inquiries about IAM organizing:

“At Rivian, we are growing our company, culture and ramping production simultaneously. Our employees are our biggest asset, and we are working to build strong, direct relationships with them – just as we are with our customers. All Rivian team members are owners in the company, which is rare in this industry. We are committed to building a strong future together,” Rivian said.

UAW’s organizing at Rivian

The IAM is not alone in trying to organize inside Rivian.

The UAW was actively organizing inside Rivian last year, trying to rally support around safety concerns inside a rapidly growing company in a union-friendly state. The UAW represented workers inside the plant when it was owned by Mitsubishi.

The status of the UAW’s Rivian work is unclear. They have not forced an election or been voluntarily recognized; the UAW organizer who previously coordinated efforts in Normal said he's no longer involved.

WGLT asked Bob Beloit from IAM about how the two efforts were related to one another.

“The Machinists union has a strong lead in there, and we’re doing what we do. And we’ll see what the employees want,” Beloit said. “I can’t speak for the UAW. I’ve never been a member (at UAW). … I believe in my union 100%.”

Unions have been eager to make inroads in the electric-vehicle space, widely seen as the future of the auto industry. Unlike legacy automakers, a clean-sheet startup like Rivian does not have to shed its internal combustion engine (ICE) past to find its electric-vehicle future.

The Big Three automakers don’t have that luxury. The UAW is now on strike against the Big Three, with contract talks are over wages, benefits, quality of life and job security. The automakers argue that despite high profits, they cannot afford the union's demands — and that the high cost of the electric transition is a big reason why.

“If we don’t secure this work and we don't secure it at ... Big Three standards, it’s not going to be a good future for anyone,” UAW President Shawn Fain said recently.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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