For 17 years, the UAW has been unable to unionize Honda Motor Co.'s U.S. auto plants. Now another union - the International Brotherhood of Teamsters - will take a crack at it.
Labor experts say the effort is far from a sure bet. The Teamsters are taking on the automaker that elevated nonunion labor to new heights in the 1980s. But the union says it has enough worker signatures to call an election.
Honda of America Manufacuring Inc. notified employees last week that the Teamsters have become active in trying to recruit workers at four of Honda's Ohio plants. Two of the factories assemble cars, one makes engines, and one builds motorcycles.
'We told them that we've accomplished a lot of things over the past 20 years,' Honda spokesman Roger Lambert said of the employee communique. 'We told them we see no reason to change our operating style.'
The company employs about 13,000 people in Ohio, building the Accord sedan and coupe, Civic sedans, the Acura TL sedan and CL coupe. The two auto plants turned out more than 700,000 cars last year.
Zeke Totten, organizer for Teamsters union Local 413, said that as many as 10,000 employees may be eligible for union representation. Totten said about 3,500 workers, sufficient for an election, have signed cards calling for an election. He said he expects to file by May 15 the necessary petition to request a union vote. The vote could be scheduled as quickly as three months.
'I don't know where it's going to go,' Totten said. 'We really didn't think we'd get this far. What we want to do is file it and get an election whether we lose it or not.'
The UAW declined to comment on the Teamsters' organizing drive.
Typically, the UAW does not call for a plant election unless it has gathered cards from at least two-thirds of the work force, about twice what the Teamsters have gathered in Ohio. Worker support usually erodes during an election campaign.
Honda and other transplant automakers have been a thorn in the side of the UAW. While UAW auto plant membership has declined over the past two decades, nonunion employment has grown at car and truck plants owned by Japanese and German producers here.
Except for three U.S. auto plants that were launched with prearranged UAW involvement in partnership with the Big 3, the UAW has been unable to organize a single Japanese or German transplant since those automakers began here in the early 1980s.
The UAW called for a union vote at Honda in the 1985 but withdrew its request because of a lack of interest before the vote. It also canceled a union drive for lack of interest at Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A. in Smyrna, Tenn., two years ago.
Whether the Teamsters will have any better luck remains to be seen, said Sean McAlinden, manager of economic studies with the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Trans-portation.
'The consensus is probably not there right now,' said McAlinden. 'The Accord is selling well, and there probably are not a lot of people worried about job security. Honda's a tough nut to crack. We believe the UAW has made eight or nine attempts at it over the years.'
The Teamsters union was once largely associated with truck drivers. But in recent years the union has branched into a diverse employment base. Teamsters locals now represent nurses, grocery store employees and state police officers.
A key issue for the Teamsters may be how willing the union is to work with Honda management. In typical Japanese-management fashion, Honda runs its plants with great worker involvement. Line workers are offered the chance to participate in new-model development. Workers take the initiative to recommend and undertake improvements in factory procedures.
A work force accustomed to such flexibility could bridle at the idea of fixed labor union rules.