To Organize Foreign Carmakers, UAW Must Build Transnational Labor Coalition

Stephen Franklin

United Auto Workers president Bob King (2L) and Teamsters President James Hoffa (2R) march through downtown Detroit after the closing of the 2010 UAW Constitutional Convention in June 2010 in Detroit, Mich.

After years of get­ting shut out of for­eign car com­pa­nies’ fac­to­ries across the Unit­ed States, the auto work­ers union fig­ured its heart­break was final­ly over.

Mer­cedes-Benz, Chrysler’s new own­ers, had just opened a plant in a lone­ly rur­al area in Alaba­ma. The com­pa­ny was nego­ti­at­ing a new con­tract with the union, and had tak­en a very unusu­al strat­e­gy for a for­eign auto mak­er. It said it wouldn’t fight the union drive.

I feel very con­fi­dent that those work­ers, giv­en a free choice, will chose the UAW,” pre­dict­ed Bob King, who, at the time, head­ed the union’s orga­niz­ing efforts.

That was 1999. Shift to 2011 and Bob King is pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers. The UAW nev­er orga­nized Alaba­ma. Nor has it orga­nized the flood of plants owned by Euro­pean, Kore­an and Japan­ese com­pa­nies that churn out mil­lions of cars in the Unit­ed States. Maz­da and Mit­subishi are the only for­eign car­mak­ers with UAW members.

In the years since, the UAW has also been a hum­bled union. Its mem­ber­ship has report­ed­ly tum­bled to under 400,000, from near­ly 1.6 mil­lion in the 1970s. It has swal­lowed its pride, accept­ing con­tacts and cut­backs that it swore would nev­er see a UAW signature.

But the UAW pres­i­dent now vows to wage anoth­er dri­ve to line up the for­eign car­mak­ers. Announc­ing the UAW’s strat­e­gy recent­ly, King said the union had no choice. 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 told a union meet­ing, accord­ing to news reports.

He’s right.

If the for­eign car­mak­ers con­tin­ue to grow and to ramp up pro­duc­tion, the union’s lever­age with the U.S. car­mak­ers will shrink even more. More con­tract give-backs. More con­tracts with less than before.

The same goes for the auto parts indus­try, where the UAW already has suf­fered severe los­es. Most of the for­eign car­mak­ers like to bring along their parts-mak­ing allies or they seek out domes­tic or for­eign parts mak­ers with the low­est costs.

When the for­eign auto com­pa­nies first arrived here, they kept their wages and ben­e­fits as close as pos­si­ble to those received by UAW mem­bers. That defense seems to have worked very well for them.

They also tried to avoid the North­ern and Mid­west­ern states, if pos­si­ble, fear­ing they would wind up with too many union-mind­ed folks in their ranks.

But some of the recent arrivals aban­doned the strat­e­gy of match­ing the UAW’s con­tract. That was because they set up facil­i­ties in the South where wages are low and state leg­is­la­tors, hun­gry for any kind of jobs and hard­ly friends of orga­nized labor, have not demand­ed high wages in exchange for the mil­lions in state-fund­ed give­aways some of the com­pa­nies have received.

So what is the UAW to do?

If it takes on the car­mak­ers on its own, it is going to be a very tough fight, a fight, like all of the oth­ers, it hasn’t won.

But if oth­er unions line up behind the UAW, the for­eign car­mak­ers may think dif­fer­ent­ly and work­ers in places in unions are a mirage may look on orga­nized labor differently.

To build a car you need steel, glass and rub­ber and a lot of items made by union mem­bers. You have to ship the car; union mem­bers dri­ve a lot of those trucks. And if they ship cars or parts of cars from Mex­i­co or else­where, many of those work­ers belong to unions in those countries.

This is the kind of mas­sive, far-reach­ing, polit­i­cal­ly savvy glob­al strug­gle that orga­nized labor has talked about mount­ing for years.

The oth­er choice is to let the UAW con­tin­ue shriv­el. Iif you want to see what comes from that, I can sug­gest a num­ber of Mid­west towns for you to visit.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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