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Foreign automakers stubbornly keep UAW off the line

A United Auto Workers member wears a shirt proclaiming
A United Auto Workers member wears a shirt proclaiming

Late last month, the United Auto Workers quietly celebrated the 75th anniversary of its historic confrontation with goons from the Ford Motor Co. The event, which came to be known as the “Battle of the Overpass,” ended years of resistance to the union’s organizing drive, effectively entrenching one of the most powerful entities in the modern labor movement.

But now, weakened by a sharp decline in membership, a generally hostile national mood and years of forced concessions, the UAW is facing what some believe is an equally significant and perhaps even tougher battle. One that could determine the future of not just the UAW, but the American auto industry, and perhaps even the American labor movement itself.

While the UAW continues to represent Detroit’s Big Three manufacturers, it has all but completely failed to gain representation rights for the so-called transplant lines now run by virtually all the major foreign-owned automakers, from BMW to Toyota to Volkswagen. Observers consider it critical for the union’s long-term survival to win over workers at those transplants, and UAW leaders apparently believe their best opportunity may come at the big Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., where the union is in the midst of a major organizing drive.

“I think you’ll see an unprecedented effort” to organize the transplants, said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor with the University of California, Berkeley, during a recent interview.

Indeed, UAW President Bob King has made the organizing drive his top priority since assuming that post in 2010.  He has bluntly warned that failure could threaten the UAW’s very survival. Since membership peaked at just over 1.5 million in 1979, the UAW rolls have tumbled to barely 400,000 — even with a push to sign up clerical and health care workers and others outside the automotive industry. 

Despite severe cost-cutting, the UAW is now running an operating deficit and tapping into its financial reserves, notes analyst and broadcaster John McElroy, host of "AutoLine: Detroit." 

“They have to give it a try because they don’t have a choice,” said McElroy. “But it’s hard to see how they might be successful this time.  They’re trying to organize in a right-to-work state where there’s a generally anti-union attitude.”

When the UAW hit its peak a third of a century ago, Detroit-based auto manufacturers overwhelmingly dominated the American marketplace.  But there were ominous signs that a change was in the works.  Emerging from the second of the 1970s Mideast oil shocks, motorists by the thousands, then millions, began shifting to Japanese imports. 

Facing heavy political pressure, Honda opened a small motorcycle plant in Marysville, Ohio, and in November 1982 added its first North American assembly plant.  Today, virtually every major foreign maker from Europe, Japan and South Korea has followed.  Honda, in particular, now produces about 90 percent of the vehicles it sells in the U.S. at factories in the North American Free Trade Agreement region.  Nissan and Toyota aren’t far behind and, if anything, the foreign-owned makers continue to expand their presence due to lopsided exchange rates. Volkswagen opened a factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., last year, and is already adding additional shifts and is talking about adding a mirror-image facility within a couple years.

So far, only three transplant facilities have been organized — and then, only facilities launched as joint ventures between U.S. and Japanese makers.  Worse for the union, the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. joint venture between Toyota and General Motors in Fremont, Calif., has closed, and Mazda is abandoning its joint venture with Ford in suburban Detroit.  Only the Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Ill., originally a joint venture with Chrysler, remains unionized.

Organizing the rest of the transplants has been a goal of every UAW leader since the mid-1980s, and the union got as far as holding a vote twice at Nissan’s mile-long assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn. Twice, in fact. Although it was rejected by more than two-to-one in 1989 and again in 2001.  Efforts elsewhere haven’t even reached the voting level.

UAW organizers believe they may have found a crack at Nissan’s other U.S. plant; workers at Canton are being paid an estimated $1.50 an hour less than the reported $26.50 earned in Smyrna.  Then again, the Mississippi plant also pays an average $10 more than the prevailing wage in that state, and workers get extensive benefits that include sharply discounted prices for new cars and auto insurance.  Meanwhile, the UAW has taken pains to remind workers Nissan hasn’t laid off a single hourly employee since setting up shop in the U.S.

In a statement, UAW President King complained that the carmaker isn’t just trying to make its point but has subjected workers to extensive “interrogations” and daily meetings designed to reinforce its anti-union message — charges the company denies.

If there’s anything that might work in the union’s favor it’s the bone-wearying schedule workers are being subjected to, especially as both Nissan workers in Canton and Smyrna ramp up production of the all-new 2013 Altima — which the company believes it can use to capture the high-profile lead in the large midsize sedan segment and topple longtime leader the Toyota Camry.

During the launch of production at the Smyrna plant last month, Bill Krueger, vice chairman of Nissan Americas, alluded to the strain when talking about the addition of a new third shift.   “It allows us to (no longer) burden our work force (in Smyrna) with 11- and 12-hour shifts,” something he noted results “in the fatigue factor when you get into extensive overtime for a sustained time.”

In the early part of the 20th Century, labor leaders often had to shed blood in their effort to organize.  The UAW’s first president, Walter Reuther, was severely injured during a battle with Ford thugs on an overpass leading to the maker’s huge River Rouge complex.

There’s little likelihood of a similar confrontation with the transplants.  But union organizers can expect to shed plenty of sweat and tears, if not their blood, in their drive to save the UAW.

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