DETROIT (Reuters) - The United Auto Workers is talking with “a lot of” foreign automakers about representing their U.S. plants’ hourly workers and could see a deal by year end, top union officials said.
UAW President Bob King has staked his reputation and the union’s future growth on winning votes to represent workers at foreign auto plants, which are predominately in the southeastern United States. He declined to say how many or with which companies the union is negotiating.
“To our pleasant surprise a lot of companies have agreed to confidential discussions with us. What they’ll lead to, I don’t know,” King said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
“Some days I‘m worried, some days I‘m frustrated. Are we putting too much hope into these discussions? I don’t know, but we’re continuing them and we feel like we’re making some progress,” he added.
The UAW has been actively trying to organize workers at Volkswagen’s (VOWG_p.DE) new Chattanooga, Tennessee plant but the comments by King were the first indication that the UAW has managed to open talks with a several foreign auto companies, which are called “transplants” in industry parlance.
While not identifying any of the companies, UAW secretary-treasurer Dennis Williams said this week the union was making “great inroads” in its organizing efforts.
“You’re going to see before the end of the year a campaign or a plant being organized,” he said.
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 VW, BMW (BMWG.DE) and Daimler AG’s (DAIGn.DE) Mercedes-Benz.
The importance of attracting workers at nonunion plants will be underscored when the UAW opens negotiations for new four-year labor agreements with U.S. automakers General Motors Co (GM.N), Ford Motor Co (F.N) and Chrysler Group LLC, operated by Fiat FIA.MI, next week.
King hopes the talks with Detroit automakers, which begin on Monday at Chrysler, will persuade foreign companies and their workers of the UAW’s “21st century approach.”
Union officials previously said they were talking with employee representatives for VW over organizing workers at the automaker’s new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
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 44 percent since 2000 to about 377,000 at the end of last year. And the drop is even larger from its all-time high in 1979 of nearly 1.5 million members.
The UAW also is reaching out to other industries to boost its membership, particularly the gaming industry, King said.
King said in January the union’s long-term future depended on signing up workers in the foreign-owned U.S. plants.
On Tuesday, King said the UAW’s willingness to cut deals with the U.S. automakers and to work to ensure their success had caught the attention of the foreign companies.
“All of these companies have been surprised and impressed by the role we played in the turnaround of the American companies, about the ongoing relationship with the American companies, about the culture we’re building of creative problem solving and really a joint approach,” he said.
Scoring that first deal might break the logjam for the union, King added.
“We definitely feel that if we can get one done ... that will open the door wider in the other locations,” he said. “All these companies recognize unions in their home countries and we don’t want Americans to be second-class citizens.”
However, historically the UAW has faced many challenges in convincing workers in the largely anti-union South.
The eight states last year with union membership rates below 5 percent -- including Tennessee, South Carolina and Mississippi -- were all in the South, government data shows. The nationwide average was 11.9 percent.
While King said he understood why the foreign automakers resisted the UAW’s efforts in the past, he is more focused on the present.
“We’re saying to them, ‘Why would you spend millions and millions of dollars to try and keep a union out when that union can add value?',” he said.
The improvements in vehicle quality and corporate profitability by the U.S. automakers only helps the UAW’s arguments, King said.
“I was down organizing in the South when we didn’t have the best quality or we didn’t have the best product,” he said of the union-represented Detroit automakers. “It’s a lot more fun when we can talk to workers and say, ‘Look at what UAW members are doing.'”
Editing by Carol Bishopric