UAW organizing efforts at transplants muddied by public union fights

UAW organizing efforts at transplants muddied by public union fights
David Barkholz
Automotive News | March 3, 2011 – 11:55 am EST
UPDATED: 3/3/11 9:03 pm ET

DETROIT — The TV images from Wisconsin are compelling. Crowds of outraged workers chant at Republican lawmakers seeking to restrict their collective bargaining rights.

For the auto industry, the drama raises an important question: Will the rancor help or hurt the UAW’s drive to organize transplant automakers in the United States?

Some say the image of chanting workers is doing the UAW no favors. But others say the fight is rallying workers and others to the union movement.

Former American Motors CEO Gerald Meyers said organized labor’s battle in Wisconsin has transformed a difficult task for UAW President Bob King — organize at least one transplant this year — into a mission impossible.

Meyers said nightly TV images of militant union members are leaving a bitter taste with a swatch of Americans who see big labor as an impediment to reining in deficit spending.

“Short of a miracle or new law, Bob ought to turn his attention somewhere else,” said Meyers, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The Wisconsin impact

Newly elected Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is trying to shrink the state’s deficit by reducing public-sector union benefits and stripping most public workers of the right to bargain collectively for benefits and pensions. His proposal would allow collective bargaining to continue on wages.

King, interviewed after a press conference in Detroit today, said the one positive in the assault on public workers was awareness among all workers that they must stand together to protect their living standards.

He said public-sector workers today are in the bulls-eye for cuts whereas it was auto workers a little over a year ago.

“The good thing in all this, I guess there’s always a silver lining, is that workers understand that we’re all tied together, he said. “If we don’t stand together and support one another, our middle-class standards will be destroyed.”

The Detroit press conference was held to rally support against a move by Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to end collective bargaining for home day-care workers represented by the UAW.

King and the UAW won’t be detoured, however, by the battles that certain state governments have picked with public-sector unions, said Brian Fredline, president of UAW Local 602 in Lansing, Mich.

The UAW has begun some field organizing around the major transplant automakers, including Toyota and Honda. King also has asked transplant executives to sign a pledge agreeing to allow fair union campaigns at their plants free of management interference or intimidation.

Promoting union teamwork

“Bob has a good cavalry and knows how to rally the troops,” said Fredline, who represents about 3,800 hourly workers at General Motors’ Lansing Delta Township assembly plant. The plant produces the Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia crossovers.

The labor fights in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere are actually promoting cohesiveness among various unions, said a UAW official who asked not to be named.

The Wisconsin fight also has raised public awareness of the right to collective bargaining, the source said.

“This fight is really about the future of the middle class, and I think America understands that,” the source said.

“It’s why you’re seeing lots of people come out in the freezing cold in the Midwest and around the country to fight for the future of all working people. I think nonunion autoworkers understand that it’s about their future too.”

The organizing drives at the transplants really will boil down to whether workers feel they can get more from collective bargaining than without it, said David Cole, chairman emeritus at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

Hourly compensation at the transplants is very close to what UAW members get at Detroit 3 auto plants, Cole said. That’s about $55 an hour with wages and benefits.

What’s more, the transplants didn’t lay off permanent workers during the automotive recession of 2008 and 2009, unlike their counterparts at the Detroit 3, Cole said.

“They’ve, in effect, had a Jobs Bank without a union,” Cole said.

The one area that UAW workers may have an advantage is in retirement and pension benefits, he said. But transplant workers will have to decide whether that’s worth union dues, which amount to about two hours of pay per month, he said.

Cole said: “Bob King has a very difficult task ahead of him.”

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