* Union still wants to organize southern auto plants
* Growth prospects may be brighter outside auto industry
* "Diversify or die," says one critic
By Bernie Woodall and Nick Carey and Paul Lienert
DETROIT, March 5 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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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.