The United Auto Workers is launching a new drive this month to organize foreign-owned auto plants in the U.S. It is doing so with the determined help of civil rights and other organizations.
UAW President Bob King sent letters to the CEOs of Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen, notifying them of the union's intention to organize their workers.
In an indication of how the union is breaking with what some called a "go it alone" approach in the past, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said last week that he was expecting to hear from King about how Jackson's Rainbow PUSH coalition can assist the effort.
Jackson noted that his organization has thousands of members and supporters in 50 major U.S. markets.
In Detroit, where the UAW represents more than 120,000 hourly workers at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, the NAACP says it is also ready to help.
And the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a small union of migrant farm workers based in Toledo, Ohio, has promised to provide volunteers to leaflet, make phone calls or demonstrate to help the auto organizing drive. "King only has to ask and we will be ready," said Baldemar Velasquez, president of FLOC.
"We will help make sure Bob has the troops," said Velasquez. "We appreciate the help we got from the UAW this year to pressure R.J. Reynolds to recognize the right of 20,000 tobacco workers to be represented by our union."
Asked why the UAW is reaching out beyond the labor movement, King replied, "The best way to rebuild the American middle class is to rebuild the union movement and the best way to do that is for progressive groups to work together. It's morally and socially the right thing to do to support other people's struggles for justice and fairness."
While cynics may accuse King of trying to revive the long-gone protest days of the 1960s, he says the new alliance-building strategy is "the most pragmatic thing in the world."
In his letters to the Japanese and German auto CEOs, the UAW president reminded them that they must obey U.S. labor law and said that, "given a chance, workers want to participate in a cooperative way with management to decide how to improve their jobs."
Past UAW drives at foreign-owned plants failed, in part, because of the anti-union atmosphere in the South, where many of these plants are located. Foreign car-makers have set up operations in states like South Carolina, the least unionized state in the country, and Alabama.
It was Alabama's two Republican senators who led the opposition to using Troubled Assets Relief Program money for loan guarantees to GM and Chrysler when they were on the brink of bankruptcy. The senators openly called for the demise of both the Detroit-based automakers and the UAW.
King shrugs off the past defeats as he justifies his union's decision to jump back into organizing at the new plants.
In addition to support from progressive groups, civil rights leaders, African American churches in the South, Latino groups and other unions, he says the auto workers union has another powerful talking point: the revival of Ford, GM and Chrysler, with the help of the union.
King says UAW hourly workers have been instrumental in the quality and productivity gains that the Detroit Big Three auto companies have made in recent years, positioning their products to compete globally.
The letters to the CEOs include proposed campaign principles to which both the companies and the union would have to adhere in any forthcoming union election. The union says it will accept the results of elections if workers at the plant get a "free and fair" election. As a show of good faith, King said, the union has suspended its demonstrations in front of Toyota dealerships. Those actions began after the closing and sale of Toyota's only unionized plant in the United States, the NUMMI plant in California. Toyota's desire to rid itself of a unionized workforce played a major role in its decision to shut down NUMMI.
King warned, however, that the union will call on its growing number of civil rights, community and labor allies to turn the heat up on the companies if they violate labor law or obstruct fair union elections.