* Union still wants to organize southern auto plants
* Growth prospects may be brighter outside auto industry
* "Diversify or die," says one critic
DETROIT, March 5 (Reuters) - United Auto Workers President Bob King says he has finally begun to stem the decades-long membership decline in one of America's most powerful labor unions, but his goal of organizing at least one foreign-owned automaker in the South continues to elude him.
King, 66, who is slated to step down in June 2014, said two years ago that the UAW did not have a future if it could not organize workers at plants in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee that are owned by Japanese, German and South Korean auto makers.
In an interview on Monday, King said the so-called southern strategy is "still a huge priority," but he no longer characterized it in do-or-die terms, noting that the UAW is also expanding beyond the auto industry into areas such as gaming, healthcare and higher education.
King said the percentage of union membership that is automotive is now less than half, with 4,400 agricultural workers and more than 5,000 casino workers joining in the past two and a half years.
"We are organizing in new areas, and we're organizing in a broad spectrum. I think that's good for any organization. Having multiple bases is better for the long term," King told Reuters.
Still, that has not satisfied some critics, who say King had staked his presidency on pledges to organize a foreign-owned plant.
Debate over the union's southern strategy resurfaced after a failed UAW-backed ballot proposal last fall to enshrine collective bargaining rights in Michigan's state constitution. That defeat encouraged conservative legislators in December to pass a law making this bastion of organized labor the 24th right-to-work state, banning compulsory union membership as a condition of employment.
"If he fails to organize in the south and is a flop in Michigan, I think you could say he was a big failure," said Bill Ballenger, a longtime pundit and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, who is critical of what he calls the UAW president's "confrontational approach."
"The question at that point is, what has the guy really done? Has he been counterproductive? I think the answer is yes."
UAW membership has plunged from 1.5 million in 1979 to 380,000 in 2011, with workers from General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co and Fiat's Chrysler Group now representing about a third of the total, down from three-quarters in the 1970s.
Union membership remains concentrated in the Midwest and Northeast. Michigan, with 130,000 members, is the stronghold, followed by Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, New York and New Jersey.
In comparison, the UAW in 2011 had only 272 members in Mississippi, 448 in Alabama, 615 in Georgia and 4,065 in Tennessee.
All four states have large foreign-owned auto plants, none of which has UAW representation, although the union since 2011 has organized several smaller southern plants operated by U.S. parts suppliers and truck manufacturers.
"I'm the eternal optimist," King said, when asked if he thought the UAW would be able to organize workers at its current southern target, Nissan Motor Co's Canton, Mississippi plant, before he retires. "I feel really good about this thing in Mississippi."
With revenue from dues plummeting 44 percent from 2001 to 2011, there is a sense of urgency behind both the southern strategy and the diversification drive.
"This is 'Custer's Last Stand,'" said Alfred DeMaria, whose New York-based law firm Clifton, Budd & DeMaria represents employers in labor disputes. DeMaria's dire observation references the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 where Native Americans killed General George Custer and over 260 of his men.
Longtime labor expert Sean McAlinden disputes DeMaria's contention.
"I don't see this particular Nissan organizing effort as a bellwether that says if they don't win this one, they've failed for good," says McAlinden, chief economist with the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research. "This is a very long process."
Win or lose in the south, diversification remains a critical issue for the UAW.
"They need to diversify or die," said Justin Wilson of the Center for Union Facts, a conservative group critical of union leadership.
King, who early in his career worked for each of the Detroit 3, has been a UAW member for more than 40 years. As a union vice president in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he spearheaded the UAW's diversification drive, organizing tens of thousands of workers in retail companies and casinos, university graduate student teachers and research assistants, and federal, state and local government employees.
When asked if the southern strategy will determine his legacy, King said: "I don't mind talking about where the UAW's going and what we're doing, but I think two years into (my) administration is too early to be talking about a legacy."
"Give me another year, then talk about my legacy," he said.