Opportunity—or Delusion?—At the UAW

March 29, 2007

Will the UAW finally get its chance to organize the imports? That’s what union boss Ron Gettelfinger is counting on as Toyota takes a rare misstep that has apparently angered workers at its expanding network of plants across the U.S.

Perhaps you’ve seen the latest Toyota commercial, the homey tale told by a folksy announcer, bragging about the plants the automaker has set up and which now employ tens of thousands of workers. Those plants pay good wages, especially in the South where those employees were often making lower wages until Toyota came along. Perhaps too good, the Japanese maker is starting to wonder.

Kudos to the Detroit Free Press which, last month, uncovered a secret company document underscoring the need to hold down labor costs. Where Toyota – and most of its import rivals – wages are currently pegged to what Detroit’s automakers pay, that could change dramatically, with individual Toyota plants paying, in the future, pegged to what workers make in lower-wage states like Mississippi.

Japanese makers have long argued workers don’t need unions to represent their interests, and as long as companies like Toyota continued matching Detroit, there was no real interest. Union drives at places like Nissan, in Smyrna, Tenn., and at Honda’s big operations in Ohio, were routinely beaten back. But this time, “There is a lot of interest,” Gettelfinger told reporters following a two-day UAW conference. But he quickly added that, “I won’t say that there’s enough interest to hold an election.”

The last thing the UAW needs is to march off to another defeat. There was a time when several million men and women paid their dues to the UAW. Today, the membership rolls are down by nearly three-quarters from that peak, even with the union spreading out and organizing other fields, including nurses and university workers. Even among the faithful following at Ford, GM and Chrysler, there are growing doubts about the relevancy of a labor movement that is being forced to retreat on benefits like healthcare that took decades for workers to win.

There are those who believe the Japanese – and Germans and Koreans – will never permit unions in their U.S. plants (with the exception of a few joint venture operations, like the GM/Toyota factory, known as NUMMI, near San Francisco). But as the number of transplants grows, as workers age, costs rise, sales occasionally stumble and manufacturers face the challenge of maintaining costs, they start taking steps that can anger the workforce. And sooner or later, the UAW is hoping, (praying?), the doors to unionization will open. Opportunity or delusion? We’ll have to wait and see.

The Detroit Free Press on the UAW

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