The UAW, civil rights groups and other unions have begun targeting Honda Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and Daimler AG to help overturn a controversial new immigration law in Alabama, where the automakers operate assembly plants.
The groups say they are prepared to expand demonstrations at dealerships nationwide if the three auto manufacturers remain silent on Alabama's recently enacted immigration measure.
The Alabama law took effect in September 2011 and requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they detain and suspect of being in the country illegally. Other parts of the law make it a felony for illegal immigrants to apply for or renew drivers' licenses, identification cards or license plates.
The Obama administration -- claiming Alabama is interfering with the federal government's exclusive authority over immigration policy -- is challenging the law in court.
A coalition of 15 civil rights organizations and labor unions seeking to repeal the law, including the UAW and NAACP, sent letters in January to Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler, requesting meetings with executives.
In the letters, the groups said the new measure was negatively affecting the state's image and business climate and urged the automakers to use their influence to convince Alabama lawmakers to repeal the law.
"As an international business leader that surely would not have invested in Alabama had it not been convinced that the state had turned the page of its racist past, your voice is an important one," the coalition said in an open letter to Honda, Daimler AG and Hyundai executives. "Your leadership in the area of social justice is required to help undo the damage caused by" House Bill 56.
Eliseo Medina, the secretary-treasurer for the Service Employees International Union, says Hyundai expressed support for human rights in a reply, but no formal meetings have been set up with any of the automakers.
Protests in 4 states
There were five protests last month at Honda dealerships in and around Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Detroit, he said.
Medina said the dealership protests may continue, adding that coalition representatives are also prepared to attend the companies' upcoming shareholder meetings to bring the issue to the attention of stockholders.
The three automakers received financial and training assistance from the state to open assembly plants, starting with Mercedes in 1997. The plants have helped lure suppliers and auto parts factories and are among Alabama's leading private employers with a combined payroll of about 9,400 workers.
Alabama provided $253 million in incentives and tax breaks to land Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance and $115 million for another expansion. The state gave Honda $158 million in incentives and tax breaks in 1999 to build a plant in Lincoln, and added $90 million in enticements when the company expanded the facility three years later. The state offered Hyundai about $253 million in public and private incentives for its plant in Montgomery that opened in 2005.
UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, noting that the companies frequently target the Latino market to sell vehicles, says it's important for the three auto manufacturers to speak up against the anti-immigrant measure.
"Latinos buy those cars and those companies target the Latino market," Estrada said. "We feel that when a specific group is being targeted and racially profiled, corporations have a responsibility to speak out against that and say it's unacceptable."
In the letters to Daimler AG and Honda, the coalition noted the law "has created an unwelcoming environment for business such as your own." It cited a Mercedes-Benz manager from Germany that was detained in November 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., after being pulled over by police and failing to provide required documents under the law. It also cited a Japanese Honda official that was detained the same month in a similar incident.
Honda and Daimler AG could not be reached for comment.
Hilary Shelton, senior vice president for advocacy and policy at the NAACP, says the Alabama State conference of the NAACP has participated in demonstrations against the bill over the last few months, including informational pickets in front of Hyundai dealerships in Alabama.
"Meetings are being held and initiatives will continue to be evolved, planned and implemented to continue to urge the state to repeal the law," Shelton said. "There will be continued discussion and communications with the auto companies."
Dave Zuchowski, Hyundai Motor America vice president of sales, recently sent a letter to U.S. Hyundai dealers, warning of possible protests at dealerships over the Alabama law.
In a prepared statement, Hyundai Motor America spokesperson Chris Hosford said Hyundai has a long-standing commitment to civil and human rights and provided advanced notice of possible dealership protests to prepare employees should it take place.
"Hyundai has productive partnerships with groups that seek to promote human rights in Alabama and around the nation, including the National Council of La Raza and the NAACP," Hosford said in the statement. "We understand that these groups have raised their concerns regarding Alabama's recently enacted immigration law, H.B. 56, with the Alabama legislature, which enacted and has the power to repeal that law."
In a 2010 study, R. L. Polk & Co. found that Asian brands dominated new vehicle purchases among Hispanic buyers in the United States, with Honda accounting for 13.9 percent of the Hispanic market and Hyundai accounting for 4.1 percent. Mercedes Benz accounted for 1.9 percent of the market.
"If these companies want Latinos to buy their cars, I think that it's not too much that they live up to their corporate responsibility and address this law," Medina said. "We're hoping we will get news that the automakers are willing to sit down and have a conversation about this. If they don't, we will be responding accordingly."