The UAW used to be as welcome at Freightliner LLC's Southern truck factories as a mice infestation. The plants were staunchly union-free, and managers and workers got a clear message that the company preferred it that way. For years, organizers have complained of workers being pressured by managers to resist the union, of outside consulting firms waging anti-union campaigns and of community leaders siding against the union.
The UAW's 1990 attempt to organize a Freightliner assembly plant in Mount Holly, N.C., ignited an anti-union movement within the work force as well as hostile community responses. Even after narrowly winning that vote, UAW negotiators spent 17 months waiting for a contract and ultimately shut the plant down in a four-month strike.
But last year things seemed to change almost magically. In just four months, the UAW organized five of Freightliner's assembly plants and parts distribution centers in North Carolina and Georgia. In addition, Freightliner of Portland, Ore., outlined plans to bring work back from Mexico and give it to its Cleveland, N.C., plant to increase production there.
And in March the union organized 1,100 workers at Freight-liner's Thomas Built Buses plant in High Point, N.C., although that union certification is being challenged.
As far as the UAW is concerned, the most extraordinary aspect of those successes is the cooperation it received from management. Before the Freightliner organizing drive started, top-level managers agreed to remain neutral and not challenge the union's discussion with Freightliner workers.
The UAW hopes to carry that model to other nonunion automakers and suppliers. It's a critical issue for the UAW as the auto industry becomes increasingly nonunion and the transplants draw it deeper into the South.
Other historically nonunion automotive companies, including suppliers Johnson Controls Inc. and Magna International Inc., have reached neutrality agreements with the union.
What's their motivation?
In some cases, it's a desire for stable labor relations. In other cases, it's a desire to create a stronger relationship with the Big 3.
"People must think they're seeing some strange alliances these days," muses Gary Casteel, director of UAW Region 8, the Lebanon, Tenn., office that oversees organizing across much of the South. "I remember how bitter things used to be at Freightliner."
Casteel acknowledges that the UAW's big break at Freightliner was a stroke of fate. The 1998 merger of Chrysler Corp. and Ger-many's DaimlerBenz AG wound up giving the UAW a seat on DaimlerChrysler's advisory board in Stuttgart. There, together with the head of Germany's powerful IG Metall union, who also sits on the board, the UAW representative pressed Freightliner parent Daim-lerChrysler to abide by true neutrality at the U.S. factories when it came to organizing workers.
As a result, when Casteel and his UAW organizers came to North Carolina last year, he could make his presentations to assemblies of Freightliner workers inside the plants rather than handing leaflets to workers in parking lots or filling stations. Standing next to the union representatives at the assemblies were the plant managers. Their message: This plant can operate with the union or without it. It's up to you to decide.
When it came to the 2,300-employee plant in Cleveland, N.C., after the presentation, workers passed their signed cards to the front of the room. They were counted, and the company recognized UAW representation about an hour later.
For Casteel, the difference is like day and night. And he believes other plants in the South will witness the change in relations at Freightliner and soften their anti-union position.
"What this offers to employers is a chance to achieve cooperative labor relations without the time and expense and drain on productivity that a long organizing drive takes," Casteel says. "An election can take six months, and that's six months of divisiveness and expense."
But he is a veteran of too many bitter campaigns to believe that anti-union attitudes will change overnight. He takes a deep breath before identifying the UAW's next target in the region: the Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. plant in Gaffney, S.C.
Even with a neutrality pledge, the union will have work to do there. Neutrality doesn't guarantee the UAW the plant, Casteel cautions. It merely allows the UAW to present its case without a contradicting message from management.
|Cracking the Southern fortress|
|Through a neutrality agreement with Freightliner management, the UAW won representation at a string of plants and parts centers in the South.|
|Truck assembly plant||Gastonia, N.C.||Jan. 29, 2003|
|Truck assembly plant||Cleveland, N.C.||Jan. 29, 2003|
|Parts center||Duluth, Ga.||15-Apr-03|
|Parts center||Cleveland, N.C.||1-May-03|
|Parts center||Mount Holly, N.C.||1-May-03|
|Bus assembly plant*||High Point, N.C.||19-Mar-04|
|*Under NLRB review|
|Source: UAW Region 8|
Meanwhile, other automotive companies are on similar footing. A few large North American suppliers have pledged neutrality at certain plants. Johnson Controls agreed in 2002 to let union organizers have access to workers at 26 of its plants. Dana Corp., Magna, Metaldyne Inc. and Collins & Aikman Corp. also have agreed to a working relationship.
But in those cases, too, the union must capture the hearts and minds of workers. At one Johnson Controls plant in Athens, Tenn., last year, instead of unionizing, workers asked organizers to leave.
What would motivate a company to embrace unionism, especially after foreign automakers such as Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. and their suppliers operate freely and effectively in the United States without it?
Steve Babson, labor professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, says the primary answer is customer relations. "The Big 3 are looking to outsource more work in the future," Babson explains. "If you're a supplier and you want to be seriously considered for contracts, you've got to send a message to the UAW that you're not their ideological enemy.
"The automakers also want their Tier 1 suppliers to be able to support them in business with a stable flow. That means you're able to show your customer that you won't have the kind of labor issues that could interrupt their deliveries."
Johnson Controls arrived at its neutrality stance after a labor flare-up in 2002. The UAW organized strikes at four Johnson Controls plants that were supplying components to Big 3 trucks, a critical profit source for Johnson Controls' automaker customers. The supplier adopted a more pro-union stance in a matter of days.
But whether other factories will join the movement is not certain. Of all the vehicle assembly plants that have opened south of the Ohio River since 1982, not one has embraced the UAW. Of the hundreds of Japanese, European and Korean auto assembly and parts factories that have opened in the South or anywhere else in North America since the 1980s, only a few have come under UAW representation. At Nissan North America Inc. in Smyrna, Tenn., the only Japanese automaker in the South to have undergone a UAW election, the UAW lost by more than a 2-1 margin in two elections a decade apart.
Even within those companies where neutrality agreements are in effect, forces are attempting to halt union recognition.
In June, after receiving worker complaints that Freightliner managers endorsed the UAW's pitch a bit too heavily this year at the Thomas Built Buses plant in High Point, the National Labor Relations Board blocked the UAW's certification there. That plant drive is under NLRB investigation.
At the same time, the Washing-ton nonprofit group National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has been doggedly challenging UAW card checks as a legitimate voting process. The privately funded foundation argues that while organizers and peers can easily coerce workers into signing cards of support for the union, only a secret-ballot election can guarantee their rights.
In recent months, the foundation has provided legal aid by representing and covering the legal costs for workers who want to file NLRB complaints about the process. Such a complaint already has been filed at the UAW's next target in Gaffney.
The foundation also brought about a congressional hearing on the practice, which may have triggered the investigation at Thomas Built Buses. Freightliner did not respond to requests to discuss the situation. Casteel refers to the foundation as "a pain" and vows to continue on his course.
"The union gets so much resistance down here," he says. "We don't have plants beating the door down wanting us to come organize. We just feel like these neutrality agreements give us a chance to present our side to workers who might want it and present it without having the company calling us liars."