Auto union puts accent on organizing

DETROIT – “Our challenge is to craft an agreement that protects our members’ jobs and income security,” said United Auto Workers (UAW) Vice President Richard Shoemaker. Shoemaker was speaking about the union’s mid-July contract talks with the Big Three auto companies, in the UAW’s Solidarity magazine. Current contracts expire September 14.

Negotiations will focus on continuing wage increases, maintaining a quality health insurance package, preserving pensions, and dealing with the issue of organizing new members in independent or foreign-owned non-union plants.

“Organizing is important to everything this union does,” Roger Kerson, UAW assistant public relations director, told the World. However, he denied a report published by Automotive News in May that hinted the UAW was willing to concede plant closings and some layoffs in exchange for help with organizing.

Organizing is crucial to the union’s long-term bargaining power, especially in the growing parts production sector, which accounts for 60 percent of all workers in automobile manufacturing.

Thousands of parts production workers were added to union rolls in 2003, mostly in the union strongholds of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. At Johnson Controls, Chelsea Industries, Arvin-Meritor, and GKN Romulus, large majorities voted for union membership.

After these victories, UAW Vice President Bob King (who is director of the union’s Organizing as well as Parts Departments), told Solidarity that, “it was the solidarity of our active members combined with the courage and solidarity [of the new members] that achieved this great victory.”

Outsourcing in parts production threatens the strong contracts won by the UAW in the past. For example, 401(k) savings plans rather than pension plans are typically included in new contracts with the parts suppliers which were spun off from the Big Three (such as Visteon, Dana, Delphi) as well as in contracts from the companies that have moved in to pick up parts production such as Johnson Controls, Metaldyne, and Thyssen Krupp. This trend puts at risk the retirement plans of workers still reeling from the loss of millions from their retirement savings plans due to corporate corruption and the recession.

Some companies are finding that the biggest way to increase profits is to move to non-union regions or to spend millions fighting union organizing efforts. Honda workers in Marysville, Ohio, Nissan workers in the brand new assembly plant near Jackson, Miss., and Lextron auto parts workers, also in Mississippi, work without union protection. The spread of non-union shops in parts and in auto assembly plants and the resultant reduction in “union density” (the percent of the total work force that is unionized) threaten to undermine the long-term bargaining power of the UAW.

For example, Dana, an Ohio-based company that makes axles, engine parts, and sealing systems mostly for Ford and Chrysler, “has aggressively and systematically attacked its union workforce by closing, selling and downsizing its unionized facilities – especially UAW-represented plants,” according to Solidarity.

On the other hand, a neutrality and card check agreement reached with Johnson Controls in its 26 plants employing 8,000 parts workers was a critical component in the organizing campaign that resulted in the UAW organizing 30,000 new workers in 2002 alone. In a card check agreement, the employer agrees to recognize the union after a majority of workers sign authorization cards.

The author can be reached at jwendland@politicalaffairs.net