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DETROIT (Reuters) - The United Auto Workers union has decided it will not identify an organizing target among foreign automakers with U.S. operations, a shift in strategy in a campaign that union leadership sees as central to its survival.
"We're shifting our strategy a little bit. We are not going to announce a target at all," UAW President Bob King said in an interview. "We are not going to create a fight."
King said that the UAW was in talks with "almost all" of the German, Japanese and Korean automakers with U.S. factories and expected to continue to make progress toward organizing workers in their operations.
But King said that the UAW board had met on Wednesday and decided not to identify a target for an organizing campaign, a sharp change in tactics by the union that represents about 115,000 workers at U.S. automakers.
King has made organizing the transnational or "transplant" automakers a critical piece of the union's strategy since he took over in July 2010.
King has repeatedly said the future of the UAW depends on organizing foreign automakers' U.S. plants, something it has failed to do numerous times in the past.
King said the union will intensify organizing efforts while it changes tactics, and will concentrate on its ability to work with companies rather than against them.
Dennis Williams, UAW secretary-treasurer, who also participated in the interview, said, "We used the wrong word" when the UAW previously said it would "target" a company for a global organizing effort.
"It would be a mistake to say the lack of a target and the lack of a deadline means there isn't a strong commitment in this area," said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley who is close to the UAW and King.
"It is an important moment. It comes in the wake of the negotiations and contracts (with the U.S. automakers) and the fact that the UAW can point to playing a central role in creating jobs in this environment."
Three weeks ago, King led UAW workers at a General Motors Co (GM.N) plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, in the chant, "This is what collective bargaining looks like."
GM placed assembly work at the former Saturn plant -- work which could have gone to Mexico. King and the UAW take credit for that.
Before the board decision on Wednesday, the UAW had said it would run informational picketing at U.S. auto dealerships of the foreign automaker picked as a target.
It now appears that there will be no such showdown.
The UAW is using a more diplomatic and less adversarial approach toward the companies than in the past because it realizes that without cooperation from the companies, organizing will fail, King said.
"It really is ultimately up to the companies," said King.
The UAW president said he hopes companies will drop "these huge anti-union campaigns" and see that "the best business case is to allow the employees to decide."
King admitted that some may look at the shift in strategy as a failure, but he said the change was more because of the success of discussions thus far.
"We are going to continue our discussions with workers and at the point that we think there is majority support, we'll move forward an election process," said King.
King was flanked during the interview at the union's headquarters in Detroit by Williams and Gary Casteel, regional director for much of the U.S. South where most of the foreign auto plants are located.
King said he expects to be successful in organizing several companies by the time his four-year tenure ends in mid-2014.
Establishing a foothold in one of the foreign automakers' U.S. plants would be a huge victory for a union that has seen its membership fall 42 by percent since 2004 to about 377,000 at the end of last year. Total UAW membership includes workers in other industries including casinos, aerospace and nursing as well as graduate teaching assistants at U.S. universities.
The drop in membership is even larger from the UAW's all-time high in 1979 of nearly 1.5 million members.
The UAW in the past has repeatedly failed to organize workers at the U.S. plants of such automakers as Japan's Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), Honda Motor Co (7267.T) and Nissan Motor Co (7201.T), South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co (005380.KS) and Kia Motors (000270.KS) and Germany's Volkswagen AG (VOWG.DE), BMW (BMWG.DE) and Daimler AG's (DAIGn.DE) Mercedes-Benz.
King, Williams and Casteel were speaking to Reuters and The Detroit Free Press.
Additional reporting by Ben Klayman and Kevin Krolicki in Detroit; editing by Matthew Lewis