BOB KING’S FINAL BATTLE: UAW uses multifront push to organize imports

UAW uses multifront push to organize imports
Nick Bunkley
Automotive News | October 21, 2013 – 12:01 am EST

DETROIT — Soon after assuming the presidency of a union that had lost nearly 40 percent of its members under his predecessor, Bob King spoke bluntly about the need to bring workers at the foreign-owned auto plants dotting the American South into the UAW’s fold.

“If we don’t organize these transnationals, I don’t think there’s a long-term future for the UAW — I really don’t,” King said in January 2011. When he set a goal of organizing at least one Southern plant by that year’s end, many outsiders saw it as wishful thinking. And as King’s term winds down — at 67, he’s too old to run in June’s election under union rules — the UAW has yet to achieve a victory.

But the union’s claim last month that it had won over a majority of workers at the 2-year-old Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga and support from within VW for establishing a German-style works council at the plant helped swing its mission from improbable to promising.

Through a strategy of coalescing global unions, civil rights activists and political figures, King has engineered a broad push into a decidedly hostile corner of the country. In addition to Chattanooga, the UAW is focusing on the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., and the Nissan factory in Canton, Miss.

Still, whether the union will succeed in King’s final months as president — or ever — remains very much up in the air.

In August, this anti-union billboard went up in the Tuscaloosa area near Mercedes-Benz’s plant in Vance, Ala.

New strategies

“He has pioneered some path-breaking strategies bringing together workers in the plant, a real presence in the community and an international vision — that combination is really unprecedented,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor who specializes in labor issues at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It looks like they are having real traction, but the closer they get to victory in Chattanooga, the more intense the opposition is going to be,” Shaiken said. “This is not by any means a sure bet. But they’ve gotten a lot closer than most analysts would have predicted.”

A win in Chattanooga would be monumental for the 78-year-old UAW, whose influence in the auto industry faded as import brands ate away at Detroit’s market share and largely avoided union-friendly territory when they started building cars in the United States. Analysts and UAW officials think, and union foes fear, that a victory at one plant could pave the way for others to follow.

“If we complete Volkswagen and get an agreement there, that will help with all the other transplants,” King said in an interview last week. “Volks- wagen would be a real breakthrough in American labor-management relations.”

King said the union has made “a lot of progress” in Chattanooga and is confident it will ultimately succeed. He acknowledged: “It’s not a done deal yet.”

Many people want to prevent that. Eight VW workers filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board in September accusing the UAW of misleading or coercing workers into supporting it. UAW opponents also say more than 600 of the plant’s 1,500 permanent hourly workers have signed petitions against union representation.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the UAW’s organizing drive is harming economic development efforts in the region. Success there would damage the area “for generations to come,” he said in an Oct. 10 interview. Corker is a former mayor of Chattanooga who helped persuade VW executives to choose his hometown over sites in Alabama and Michigan.

“Then it’s BMW, then it’s Mercedes, then it’s Nissan,” Corker told Automotive News, “hurting the entire Southeast if they get momentum.”

He continued: “It’s not that I’m anti-union. I am very, very anti-UAW. The UAW’s been a very destructive force in our country. I can’t imagine a company in America, left to their own accord, voluntarily associating themselves with the UAW.”

UAW opponents in August paid for a pair of billboards along Interstate 20 near the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa County, Ala. Their message: “Don’t let the UAW turn Alabama into the next Detroit.”

3 targets: Pivotal battles that will shape the future
Ford increased incentives to counter the launch of GM’s redesigned pickups. Here are average incentives per unit (figures reflect multiple model years).
Sept. ’13 Sept. ’12 change
Ford F-150 $4,712 $3,701 27%
Chevy Silverado 1500 $3,777 $5,533 -32%
GMC Sierra 1500 $3,466 $5,403 -36%
Ram 1500 $3,945 $4,537 -13%
Toyota Tundra $3,627 $4,058 -11%
Nissan Titan $4,141 $4,495 -8%
Source: Edmunds

Global solidarity

The biggest difference between King’s strategy and earlier organizing failures has involved leveraging auto worker unions and powerful people around the world to pressure automakers and help woo employees raised in a region skeptical of unions.

Early in his term, King had UAW members picketing banks, supporting farmers, protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and backing myriad social causes. He marched with civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton in Selma, Ala., and often lent support to unions in nonmanufacturing industries.

He and other UAW officials began circling the globe to meet with unions such as Germany’s IG Metall, which is six times the size of the UAW and holds half of the 20 seats on VW’s supervisory board. They also visited Brazil, Japan, South Korea and South Africa and frequently invited union leaders in those countries to visit the plants here they are trying to organize.

To some degree, getting the UAW into those plants is in the foreign unions’ best interest, to discourage their employers from trying to cut costs by pitting their plants against their nonunion U.S. counterparts. King forged closer ties to those unions by demonstrating the UAW’s wide-ranging commitment to social justice and workers’ rights.

“They discover, ‘We’re much more closely aligned with the UAW than we realized,'” King told Automotive News. “Worker rights in the U.S. are really not being honored and respected the way they are in many other countries in the world, so we need the support of our sister unions around the world. It’s never happened at the level it’s happening today.”

The UAW enlisted actor Danny Glover, a longtime social activist and film star, as an emissary, speaking to college students and other groups across the South as well as abroad.

In May, photos on a UAW-affiliated Facebook page show that King and Glover traveled together to lead protests in South Africa, where Nissan operates a large unionized plant. Two weeks later, Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town, wrote to Toshiyuki Shiga, COO of Nissan Motor Co. in Japan, criticizing the company for creating a “climate of fear” among its workers in Canton, Miss.

“The right to form a union is a fundamental human right,” Tutu wrote in the letter, posted on a UAW-sponsored Web site, “I believe that the United Auto Workers is committed to collaborating with employers and forming positive relationships.”

In September, Glover and King led a delegation of Canton workers to Brazil, where Nissan plans to open a plant next year, to meet with union leaders and picket Nissan dealerships. A former president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, subsequently attacked Nissan for an “attitude of intransigence and intolerance” in a letter to Shiga and CEO Carlos Ghosn, a native of Brazil.

“If you take away the fear and intimidation,” King said, “workers overwhelmingly choose to be part of a bargaining process.”

Organizing the South on Dipity.

Civil rights battle

Tensions are running high in Canton, a city whose population is 80 percent black. It sits 30 miles north of the state capitol in Jackson, where civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered by a white supremacist 50 years ago. A group of local pastors and other activists, including the state’s NAACP chapter, have joined the UAW to accuse Nissan of the type of oppression Evers was fighting.

A UAW-commissioned report released this month by Lance Compa, a Cornell University professor who interviewed numerous Nissan workers, contends that Nissan overtly discourages unionization by threatening workers’ jobs and violates international labor standards on freedom of association. Compa and Wade Cox, a production technician who spoke to Automotive News in an interview arranged by the UAW, said Nissan continually shows anti-union propaganda on TVs throughout the plant.

“Nissan just hammers home this message that unions are job closers, unions are plant closers,” Compa said at an Oct. 8 press conference in Washington.

A Nissan spokesman, Justin Saia, disputed the allegations and called the report “neither objective nor credible.” Nissan, he wrote in an e-mail, “has never violated U.S. labor standards and would never tolerate threats or intimidation of our employees. Nissan will continue to abide by U.S. labor laws and support the rights of employees to decide whether they wish to be represented by a union.”

As the campaign against Nissan ratcheted up, the company announced two large donations in April: $500,000 to the Canton school district and $100,000 to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute. It also gave Canton workers their first raise in seven years.

Earlier, Glover had invoked Medgar Evers’ name at a rally against Nissan last summer; but in June, after the Nissan gifts, Glover did not come to town to speak at an annual dinner honoring Evers. Joe Atkins, a University of Mississippi journalism professor who runs a blog called “Labor South,” wrote that the sudden philanthropy “may be a sign that Nissan is feeling the pressure.”

The Rev. Isiac Jackson, pastor of a Missionary Baptist church 1.5 miles from the plant, said he became involved with the UAW after some of his parishioners who work at Nissan came to him with complaints about the company’s treatment of workers, many of whom are temporary employees who receive wages lower than those of full-time employees. He said Nissan is unfairly trying to prevent workers from even voting on whether to join the UAW.

“Why, in America — and especially in the South, where we had to fight for the right to vote — do we, once again, have to fight for the right to vote?” said Jackson, who leads a group calling itself the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan. “If they played by the rules, they would lose hands down.”

Targeting VW

VW’s plant, which opened in May 2011, immediately was seen as a logical target for the UAW. Every other VW plant in the world has a union, and the UAW represented workers at the company’s only other U.S. plant, near Pittsburgh, until it closed in 1988.

After King’s election in June 2010, UAW members had protested at some Toyota dealerships and gone door to door in Montgomery, Ala., near the Hyundai Motor Manufacturing America plant. Both actions were later abandoned.

But after VW arrived, the UAW found its workers more receptive and management less resistant to the idea of a union.

“They’re the ones that most walk the talk,” King said of VW. “All the companies say that they respect workers’ rights to bargain, but then they let their American management run wild and violate workers’ rights. Volkswagen doesn’t do that.”

The UAW’s fight took a big step forward after the top labor representative on VW’s supervisory board, Bernd Osterloh, expressed support for a works council in Chattanooga. He said such a setup would give workers at the plant, which builds the Passat sedan, an important voice when sites are chosen to assemble future products such as a mid-sized SUV under consideration for Chattanooga or Mexico.

Under U.S. labor law, a works council would require the workers to be represented by a trade union, though what exactly that would have to consist of is in dispute. King hopes to use that prerequisite to his advantage and wants VW to recognize the UAW without a secret-ballot vote by workers.

He said card check, in which a majority of workers need to sign cards saying they agree to be represented by the union, is the “least disruptive process for determining representation” and that organizers already have collected enough cards.

“I think Chattanooga’s going to be organized,” King said. “The timing of it, I don’t know yet. We’re still talking through that process. It’s not a done deal yet, but I feel really positive about it.”

But the anti-UAW petitioners say they have gathered signatures from workers who signed cards but now want to revoke them because they either changed their mind or did not realize the card was equivalent to a vote.

Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which is assisting the workers who filed complaints against the UAW, argues that the union would lose if workers voted.

“A card is not the same as someone willing to go pull a lever behind a curtain where they don’t have to worry about a union organizer watching them,” Semmens said. “Card check is not a reliable gauge of employee interest. It’s a reflection of how much pressure is being applied by union organizers to get those cards.”

Jonathan Walden, a pro-UAW employee in the plant’s paint department, insisted that the cards he and his co-workers signed were clear in their intent, and that “a very strong majority” favor unionization. Walden said plant managers stressed during recent team meetings in the plant that signing a card meant supporting UAW representation, but unlike the union’s accusations against Nissan, VW has not urged workers to say no.

A source familiar with the situation who requested anonymity told Automotive News last week that, given the difficulty of reconciling signed cards submitted by the union with the large number of signatures on the petitions, it is unlikely VW would recognize the UAW through card check. The source was not authorized to speak about the matter.

Volkswagen Group of America has not commented publicly since a Sept. 4 remark by CEO Jonathan Browning: “We are looking for an innovative solution in Chattanooga that allows our employees to have a strong voice, both locally and in our global formal works council structure. … Ultimately, the decision of formal, third-party representation is up to our employees, through a formal vote.”

2 parts plants

Only two unionization votes have occurred at foreign-owned auto plants in the South, but the UAW has won representation at some parts-making operations. Workers at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tenn., turned down the UAW by 2-to-1 ratios in 1989 and 2001. In 2012, workers at a Faurecia North America plant and a Johnson Controls plant outside Tuscaloosa voted to join the UAW, but workers at another Faurecia plant nearby rejected the union two months ago.

The idea that VW would welcome the UAW surprised Corker, the Tennessee senator, who said company officials who met with state officials at his dining-room table several times during the selection process were very against the plant being unionized. A member of the team that tried to attract VW to Michigan said it later became clear that the state was never truly in the running because of its strong union background.

“They at that time expressed strongly their lack of any kind of desire to be involved with the UAW,” Corker said. “It’s naive of the German officials to think they could come here and have the UAW as their partner in a works council and everything’s going to go merrily along.”

Since that time, King has spent his time as president trying to show automakers around the world that the UAW is a productive partner, having long ago shed the antagonism that many critics blame for Detroit’s troubles.

“We just have to convince them,” King told reporters at the 2011 Automotive News World Congress as he was launching his crusade, “that we’re not the evil empire that they think we are.”

UAW President Bob King has said the UAW’s future depends on organizing “transnationals.”

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