UAW’s King says organizing at transplants begins in January
Automotive News | December 22, 2010 – 11:37 am EST
UPDATED: 12/22/10 4:30 pm ET
|DETROIT — UAW President Bob King said the union intends to launch a campaign in January to organize the U.S. manufacturing plants of Asian and German automakers.
In an exclusive interview, King said the UAW has sent letters to the global CEOs of the automakers with U.S. transplant operations, saying the union wants to organize their plants and cooperate to improve operations.
King declined to say which transplant automaker the UAW would target first or to reveal how the automakers responded to the letter.
King took over the UAW helm last June after predecessor Ron Gettelfinger competed his two-term, eight-year tenure.
In another gesture, the UAW has called off demonstrations at U.S. Toyota dealerships, King said. The union halted the protests, started at select dealerships after Toyota decided last spring to close its assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., to “reach out” to Toyota officials on the eve of the organizing drive, he said.
“We said we were going to be the UAW of the 21st century and didn’t feel like that was accomplishing that goal,” King said of the decision to end the dealership protests.
‘Free and fair’ elections
King said the UAW will start the campaign in January with a press conference.
The union is asking target automakers to sign principles pledging that they will not interfere with free and fair union elections at their factories.
The principles, which King first announced this summer, were approved by the UAW’s board of directors within the past week, King said.
If the UAW is allowed to hold a fair election and workers at transplant operations vote against unionization, the UAW will respect the decision and quietly leave, King said.
Once the campaign is announced, the UAW expects to begin actively organizing workers at the plant level, King said. Given a chance, workers want to participate in a cooperative way with management to decide how to improve their jobs, he said.
Toyota will leave it up to its 20,000 U.S. hourly manufacturing employees at 10 plants to decide whether they want a union if and when the UAW comes calling, said Toyota spokesman Mike Goss.
Since Toyota first began manufacturing cars in the U.S. at its Georgetown, Ky., plant 25 years ago, employees have seen no need to unionize, despite organizing drives by the UAW, Goss said.
The company has treated employees well and has never laid off an hourly employee even in the face of economic downturns that caused other automakers to lay off massive numbers of workers. “We’ve made a commitment to our employees,” Goss said.
As to the UAW suspension of protests at Toyota dealerships, those demonstrations never should have happened, Goss said.
He said it was “unfair” for the UAW to single out Toyota for the closing of Toyota’s Fremont, Calif., assembly plant when it was the pullout by plant partner General Motors several months earlier that made the venture no longer viable.
“It made no sense for the UAW to attack us,” Goss said.
A better story to tell
King said the UAW has a better story to tell transplant workers today than it had over several decades of failed efforts to organize those workers.
UAW-represented hourly workers have been instrumental in the quality and productivity gains that the Detroit 3 have made in recent years, positioning their products to compete globally, King said.
The UAW also was first to the table to make concessions and sacrifices that have helped Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group to emerge from the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, he said.
Those concessions equate to between $7,000 and $30,000 per worker, King has said. The UAW now represents about 120,000 hourly workers at the Detroit 3, down several fold from even a decade ago because of plant closings and buyouts.
Nissan North America spokeswoman Katherine Zachary said the company is aware of the UAW’s plans, but noted that the union’s past attempts to organize Nissan workers have failed.
“Each time the UAW conducted a campaign that led to a union election at our Smyrna assembly plant, employees voted overwhelmingly against organizing,” Zachary said in an e-mail to Automotive News.
Zachary noted that the wages and benefits paid to Nissan’s workers are competitive, the company has never laid off an employee in its 27 years of manufacturing in the United States, and the company fully complies with the National Labor Relations Act.
“We feel the best way to interact with employees is through direct, two-way communication as opposed to involving a third party,” Zachary said in the e-mail. “This approach to employee relations has been very successful resulting in a healthy and positive work environment that encourages the free exchange of ideas.”
Hyundai Motor America spokesman Chris Hosford declined to comment on King’s announcement. Hosford did not know if Hyundai’s U.S. operations had received a letter from the UAW stating its intent to organize Hyundai’s plant in Montgomery, Ala., he said.
"We have always said we would listen to what our workers want in regard to their working conditions," Hosford said.
Hyundai’s Alabama plant, which builds the Sonata and Elantra sedans, employs about 2,500 workers.
A Honda spokesman declined to comment on the matter.
VW officials could not be reached for comment.
Ryan Beene contributed to this report.