Workers at the Japanese-owned auto assembly plants in this country have turned their backs repeatedly on UAW organizers.
So now the UAW is virtually giving up on them, and turning its attention to trying to organize the two German-owned plants.
'We are working with the unions in Germany to try to organize the German plants here,' says UAW President Steve Yokich. 'It's hard to tell if that will bear fruit, but I don't think it will be as tough as it was with the Japanese plants.'
Tough is an understatement in describing the UAW's quest to unionize the relatively young foreign-owned assembly plants.
The U.S. transplants now have about 44,000 workers in 16 auto and engine factories. Only three of those plants, with a total of 12,700 employees, have a UAW presence. And each of those three was opened with Big 3 assistance, and the understanding that workers would be represented by the UAW.
Meanwhile, transplant operations continue to grow in this country, and Big 3 employment continues to shrink. And the UAW, which depends heavily on the auto industry for its existence, has seen its membership slide from about 1.5 million in 1978 to 780,000 today. Workers at both the new auto assembly plants and the 300-plus new transplant supplier firms have shunned the union.
Yokich knows his job will not be easy. The transplants offer pay and benefits that are roughly equal to the Big 3 packages. And the social and political environments where the transplants are, particularly in the South, generally do not support union activity.
'Organizing is the toughest job in the UAW,' the union chief says.
So for now, the UAW will give up on the Japanese transplants. In June, it plans to create a new vice president's position to concentrate solely on organizing efforts at the German plants and on independent suppliers.
'I told them to pull the plug on Nissan and Honda,' Yokich says. 'Quite frankly, in my view, that was an expenditure of 10 years, and we were no further along than we were when we started.'
The union was soundly rejected during a 1989 vote at Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A. in Smyrna, Tenn. Since then, workers at Nissan, at Toyota's facilities in Kentucky and at Honda's two plants in Ohio have shown little interest in the union.
Last summer, a second drive at Smyrna ended soon after it began, even after UAW-represented workers from nearby Saturn Corp. tried to pitch in on recruitment efforts.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
So why would BMW and Mercedes-Benz be any more willing to work with the U.S. auto union? Yokich says he has two aces to play:
1. He says it is generally easier to organize during good economic times because workers do not fear for their jobs.
2. Workers sit on the boards of German automakers, and may be able to influence affairs in this country.
But organizing the Germans will not be a piece of cake.
Bobby Hitt, spokesman for BMW Manufacturing Corp. in Spartan-burg County, S.C., says workers there receive competitive hourly wage rates of $18.25, not including benefits. He says workers also are eligible for annual bonuses and a car allowance. Big 3 workers earn $19 an hour, excluding benefits.
Most important, Hitt says the hourly workers make important decisions on the factory floor.
'Our process is a self-directed-work team concept,' Hitt says. 'It does not easily attract a third party.'
There are 1,500 hourly workers at the BMW plant, and the same number planned for the Mercedes plant now ramping up in Vance, Ala.
Yokich admits the pay and benefits are attractive to workers in the South. But he says UAW workers have a greater voice than their transplant counterparts in establishing employee programs, and he believes UAW workers are better trained.
However, the products from the transplant operations perennially end up on top of industry quality studies, like J.D. Power & Associates' Initial Quality Survey.
The union also must contend with plant expansions. During a plant expansion, employees often find themselves considering a job promotion, or at least a move to a more appealing work slot. Workers on one shift may find an opportunity for moving to another shift. They are not traditionally the time when employees are clamoring for union representation.
BMW and Mercedes are expanding both their factories and their payrolls. BMW, which is expanding its Spartanburg plant, additionally said in recent months that it would hire 500 more workers in order to produce BMW first 'sport-activity vehicle' there.
Similarly, Mercedes is ramping up to full employment in Vance. On top of that, the company announced late last year that strong demand for its Alabama-built ML320 sport-utility is prompting it to spend $40 million and hire another 100 people.
The UAW also is not guaranteed that the power of Germany's autoworkers union, IG Metall, will translate to power in South Carolina and Alabama. As is customary in German industry, the union holds a seat on the automakers' management board. Yet IG Metall tried to dissuade BMW from going to the United States in the first place. It failed. And while the Spartanburg project was under construction, IG Metall's complaints about nonunion construction labor led nowhere. The German union has vowed to assist the UAW since 1992.
PROS AND CONS
Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California in Berkeley, says the unionization of transplant factories is inevitable.
'I don't know when that will happen,' Shaiken says, 'but as the work force ages, as growth slows down, and as the Japanese try to cut corners in this competitive industry, this may lead to workers wanting representation.'
But Jim Harbour, an auto industry consultant who studies productivity in plants, disagrees.
'They may have some luck with the Germans, but I doubt the day will ever come when the Japanese plants join the union,' says Harbour, chairman of Harbour and Associates Inc. in Troy, Mich.
'I think Yokich has lost it in there,' Harbour says. 'The more they stay without the union, the stronger they get.'
But Yokich will not give up.
'The Japanese have quality, but they have a lot of injuries too,' he says. 'That's why the Japanese will come to us eventually.'