UAW’s King, in shift, says he won’t pick transplant target, Union cites progress in talks with European, Asian automakers

UAW’s King, in shift, says he won’t pick transplant target
Union cites progress in talks with European, Asian automakers
Bernie Woodall
Automotive News | December 7, 2011 – 2:02 pm EST
UPDATED: 12/7/11 9:23 pm ET

DETROIT (Reuters) –The UAW has decided not to identify a single foreign automaker with U.S. plants on which to focus its organizing efforts, a change in strategy in a campaign central to the union’s survival.

“We’re shifting our strategy a little bit,” UAW President Bob King said in an interview on Wednesday. “We are not going to announce a target at all. We are not going to create a fight.”

UAW officials had often said they would select one target on which to focus the union’s efforts to represent that company’s U.S. factory workers. However, King said the new approach simply brought strategy in line with the UAW’s more cooperative approach and was not a retreat.

As recently as last week, a union spokeswoman had said it planned to identify a target sometime this month.

King has made organizing the American plants of foreign, or “transplant,” automakers a critical piece of the union’s strategy since he took over in July 2010.

UAW officials said they expect the union to be successful in organizing several companies by the time King’s four-year tenure ends in mid-2014. King has repeatedly said the UAW’s future depends on organizing the transplants, something it has failed to do in the past.

Huge victory needed

Establishing a foothold in one of the foreign automakers’ U.S. plants would be a huge victory for a union that has seen its membership fall by 42 percent since 2004 to about 377,000 at the end of last year. The drop is even larger from the UAW’s all-time high of nearly 1.5 million members in 1979.

King said the UAW, which represents about 115,000 workers at the U.S. automakers, was in talks with almost all of the German, Japanese and South Korean automakers with U.S. factories and expected to continue to make progress toward organizing workers in their operations.

The UAW’s board decided Wednesday not to pick a target — officials said the word was too adversarial — but the union will still intensify efforts to organize workers at the plants, concentrating on working in cooperation with the companies.

Analysts said King is the first UAW president to make organizing a top priority for the union.

“This whole effort is unprecedented,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley, who is close to the UAW and King. “The UAW has targeted the transplants before, but never with this kind of focus and commitment.”

King has touted the UAW’s new approach with the U.S. automakers, with whom the union reached new labor deals this fall, as a symbol of the union’s greater cooperation with the companies which led to more union jobs.

Three weeks ago, he led UAW workers at a General Motors Co. plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., in the chant, “This is what collective bargaining looks like.”

King and the UAW have taken credit for GM’s decision to place assembly work at the former Saturn plant in Spring Hill instead of sending it to Mexico.

More diplomatic

Before Wednesday’s board decision, the UAW had said it would run informational picketing at U.S. auto dealerships of the foreign automaker picked as a target. It now appears there will be no such showdown.

The UAW is adopting a more diplomatic approach because it realizes that without cooperation from the companies, organizing will fail, King said.

“It really is ultimately up to the companies,” he said.

The UAW president said he hopes companies will drop “these huge anti-union campaigns” and allow employees, free from any kind of pressure, to decide whether to join the union.

King acknowledged some may look at the shift in strategy as a setback, but he said the change was more because of the success of talks with the foreign automakers thus far.

He said the union was further along with one or two of the automakers, but declined to identify them.

The UAW has previously failed to organize workers at the U.S. plants of Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co., and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz of Germany. Other foreign automakers with U.S. plants include South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. and its Kia Motors affiliate, and Germany’s Volkswagen AG and BMW.

King was flanked during the interview at the union’s headquarters in Detroit by UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams and Gary Casteel, regional director for much of the U.S. South where most of the foreign auto plants are located.

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