Special report: The UAW's last stand

Thu Dec 29, 2011 1:46pm EST
 
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By Bernie Woodall, Ben Klayman and Jan Schwartz

DETROIT/HAMBURG (Reuters) - The United Auto Workers union is staking its future on the kind of struggle it hasn't waged since the 1930s: a massive drive to organize hostile factories.

This time, the target is foreign car makers, whose workers have rebuffed the union repeatedly. Specifically, Reuters has learned, the union is going after U.S. plants owned by German manufacturers Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE: Quote) and Daimler AG (DAIGn.DE: Quote), seen as easier nuts to crack than the Japanese and South Koreans.

It's a battle the UAW cannot afford to lose. By failing to organize factories run by foreign automakers, the union has been a spectator to the only growth in the U.S. auto industry in the last 30 years. That failure to win new members has compounded a crunch on the UAW's finances, forcing it to sell assets and dip into its strike fund to pay for its activities.

In dozens of interviews with union officials, organizers and car company executives, a picture has emerged of UAW President Bob King's strategy. By appealing to German unions for help and by calling on the companies to do the right thing, King hopes to get VW and Daimler to surrender without a fight and let the union make its case directly to workers.

Central to this effort is the belief that if car companies refrain from actively opposing a UAW organizing push, workers at German-American factories will gladly join the union.

But that belief may be off-base. Workers know that almost every job lost at U.S. car factories in the last 30 years has occurred at a unionized company, while almost every job gained has come at a non-union company. And most of the factories the UAW is targeting are in the South, which is historically hostile to unions.

"People have a different opinion in the South about unions," said Robert Plisko, a retired autoworker who helped UAW organizing efforts at German and Japanese plants in the 1970s and 1980s. "It's a lot harder now than it has ever been, and I don't see it getting any easier."

German auto executives declined to talk in detail about the UAW's push. Privately, they remain wary of the union and its confrontational past. "They view the UAW as a disaster," said a Wall Street banker who has worked extensively with the industry.   Continued...