UAW Says It Will Go ‘All In’ To Organize Foreign-Owned Auto Plants

The UAW will attempt to shame Asian- and German-owned automakers into remaining neutral as the union tries to organize their plants in the U.S. In December UAW members demonstrated near Detroit in support of Korean workers striking Hyundai. Photo: Jim West.

The United Auto Workers announced a $60 million plan this month to organize the foreign-owned auto plants in the Midwest and South. UAW President Bob King told Labor Notes if this were poker, the campaign would be an “all-in hand. If we lose, we’ll die quicker. If we win, we rebuild the UAW.”

The union’s numbers have fallen from 1.5 million in 1979 to 350,000 today. Only 53,000 work at GM, for example, compared to 475,000 then, a result of outsourcing, speedup through lean production, and lost market share.

Some of those lost sales have been taken over by the “transplants,” 14 Asian- and German-owned assembly plants and dozens of parts factories built since the 1980s, employing around 50,000 hourly workers, by UAW estimates. Those plants produced 43.6 percent of all vehicles made in the U.S. last year, according to the automotive research firm Baum and Associates.

In the past, Toyota, Mercedes, and the rest pegged their wages very near Big Three levels, to keep the union out. But today, King says, those companies “don’t fear us or respect us.” He cites Nissan’s wage scheme at its new Mississippi plant, where new hires will never reach the level of current workers.

Of course, that’s also true in UAW contracts with the Big Three, where since 2007 new hires have started at half wages, around $14. That’s the rub for the union, which must convince non-union workers they need to join a union that’s going backward on wages, benefits, and shop floor control.


“It makes it difficult to convince them to join the union,” says Gary Walkowicz, a bargaining committeeperson at Ford’s Dearborn truck plant, who ran against King for president last summer. “Instead of us fighting for improvements, we’re giving them a reason not to join by making the union look weak.”

King and his executive board are banking on the idea that there’s a different reason why not one Southern transplant has voted for the UAW: fear. He recalls the UAW’s drive at Nissan’s Tennessee plant in 2001, when the plant manager insinuated the factory would move elsewhere if workers voted yes. The count was 3,103-1,486.

The union’s goal is to remove the fear factor, by convincing companies to sign on to 11 “Principles for Fair Union Elections.” The union will first ask politely. King wants to convince employers that the union “adds value” and thinks they would agree “if they were smart.”

“If workers have a larger voice they produce a better product,” he says. The principles promise to promote employers’ success, rejecting “an adversarial work environment.”

The union asks companies to commit to elections without coercion, intimidation, or threats. Neither side would threaten repercussions nor make promises about increased wages. The parties would get equal access to the electorate and disavow any threats from community allies such as the local chamber of commerce.

Neither side would disparage the other. Disagreements about campaign conduct or firings of union supporters could be taken immediately to an impartial third party. A contract would be bargained promptly and the union would be committed to the success of the employer through “shared responsibility for quality, innovation, flexibility and value.”


What’s the incentive for BMW or Hyundai to sign up? King admits that the positive incentive, a union partner, is not likely to inspire them. So if a company behaves badly in an organizing drive, the union will undertake a “global portrayal of who they really are.”

King says public pressure and brand image mean a lot to these companies.

“If we go globally to expose human rights violations wherever they sell vehicles, we can impact their bottom line,” he says. “The only reason an employer sits down is if it’s a better business case than fighting us in a protracted war. It’s been cheaper and smarter for them to fight us up till now. We want to make it smarter for them to work with us.”

The idea is to take on a test case. “If we take on one fight really aggressively,” King says, “employers will respect the power of the UAW a lot more.”



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The shame campaign will consist of consumer information through leafleting, perhaps ads and new media, and other actions King would rather not reveal. He emphasizes that the campaign will be global.

Can the UAW organize transplants,
when some members’ wages have been halved? Photo: Jim West.

Some have speculated that the Korean company Hyundai, which has a plant in Alabama, could be a first target. That could help explain King’s surprising support last month for the proposed Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which was heavily backed by Korean manufacturers, after a long history of UAW opposition to such deals. Some wondered if supporting the pact was the union’s show of good faith toward employers.

On the other hand, an early installment of the confrontational side of the campaign took place in December, when the UAW demonstrated at a Hyundai tech center near Detroit in support of striking workers in Korea.

Can a campaign of harassment hurt the transplant companies enough to make them say uncle? Local officials expressed cautious support. Dave Edgar, financial secretary at a Chrysler local in Warren, Michigan, said, “I’m sure [the International] thought it over. What worked yesterday may not work today.”


“I hope they sign on,” said Joe Cardona, second vice president of a Detroit-area local. Why would the transplants sign? Cardona chuckled: “They’re good corporate citizens. At least that’s what their commercials say.”

There’s precedent for unions winning elections through a non-disparagement agreement. The Service Employees has used them extensively to organize in health care, although the union’s been criticized for trading template contracts with poor standards for employer neutrality.

A notable exception is the Food and Commercial Workers’ victory over Smithfield Foods in North Carolina in December 2008. Circumstances were quite different, however: a mostly Black and Latino workforce, a long history of bitter antagonism between the two sides, including company law-breaking and violence against union supporters, an aggressive boycott and pressure campaign, and a strong committee that organized bold in-plant actions. The UAW doesn’t claim to have that kind of on-the-ground support anywhere yet.

One of the UAW’s earlier experiments with employer neutrality ran into problems. Weeks after the union won a card check at a Metaldyne Corp. parts plant, more than half the workers filed a decertification petition.

Neutrality deals are often criticized because unions try to “organize the employer” through pressure campaigns and neglect to build a strong base in the shop. How is the UAW to build such committees, given the shellacking it has taken in the media, especially during the government bailout in 2009?

Far from contributing to the companies’ success, the union was painted as a chief reason for their bankruptcies. Jeff Brown, a rank and filer at a Ford-Mazda joint venture, noted, “The Fox News pundits have turned the people in the South so much against the union that the company doesn’t even need to say anything.”

Many current members are also disgusted with the union, for different reasons: its inability to defend their conditions as globalization and lean production took their toll. They are more likely to talk decertification than to think the union can turn back the assault on their jobs.

But King said he will call on members and transplant workers for actions at dealerships and city councils. “People inside the UAW know we got these contracts because we represented everybody in the industry,” King said. “Bosses knew they would not be less competitive if they signed a pattern agreement.

“Members have to be part of this to get the power back.”

At the same time the union takes on the transplants, contract talks with the now profitable Big Three will begin this summer. King has signaled his willingness to accommodate the companies’ concerns.

“We have completely discarded the ‘us versus them’ mentality,” he told the Automotive News World Congress this month.

Walkowicz doesn’t think that will work. “If we want to convince the people in the non-union plants, we have to fight,” he said. “Turn back the concessions and give people a reason to want to join the UAW.”


A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #383, February 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.


JTDRIFTER (not verified) | 01/25/11

It's the workers who will decide to join or not,corporate oppostion will not be the "decider".

Bob King is extending a welcome hand to trasplant workers with the same hand he has backhanded us with.

"We will die sooner" if they don't join? Why give these workers an incentive NOT to join upfront?