Look beyond Bob King's Toyota-baiting

Bob King came out swinging after his election as president of the UAW, vowing a public relations and union-organizing effort to “pound Toyota.” But words and quotes sometimes don't capture the full reality of a thing.

Toyota has been a thorn in the UAW's paw for 20 years. Big, prosperous, prestigious -- and virtually union-free across North America.

King may well want to go after a nonunion Toyota plant or some of Toyota's vast nonunion U.S. supply base. And who knows? After 20 years of UAW leaflets rolling off their backs like unwanted raindrops, the workers at some of those plants might actually change their thinking and embrace unionization.

But King is far from naive. He's a sophisticated business strategist who spent several years on the front line of the union's organizing activity, hearing firsthand what new-age auto workers in the South think about unions and the Detroit-based UAW in particular.

The reality of modern-day union industry wages is that nonunion transplant automakers like Toyota now have an enormous influence on Detroit 3 union wages. A decade ago, the transplants had to keep their own wages reasonably close to those paid by General Motors and Ford or risk leaving themselves open to unionization.

The situation is somewhat reversed today: Because transplant auto wages in places like West Point, Ga., and Canton, Miss., have slipped further away from UAW levels, the union has felt pressure to go easier on wage demands in Detroit.

Why should GM have to pay factory workers “$X” when Kia only has to pay “$X minus 20 percent”? This was a key motivation for the creation of the union's new two-tier wage structure and also a pulsating issue of the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies last year.

Now it's a year later, and King is ready to move forward. But his flank is exposed. With the industry still hobbling, Toyota is freer than ever to make wage decisions based on local market considerations in Texas or Mississippi, rather than whatever its unionized U.S. competitors are paying a thousand miles away.

King knows that if he wants to hold the line on UAW wages, he must turn up the heat on Toyota. Does he seriously expect Toyota's workers to suddenly join the UAW? Probably not. But he needs to remind Toyota management that he's still out there inviting them.