Unions looking to make Hoosier comeback

unioinize chartIndiana could be on the front line in the United Auto Workers’ campaign to unionize foreign-owned plants.

Asian and German carmakers are the subject of an organizing effort that UAW President Bob King started this month, and that the union will back with at least $60 million from its $800 million strike fund.

Indiana represents a large pool of potential new union members because it is home to three assembly plants, owned by Honda, Toyota and Subaru, employing more than 8,000 people. Indiana is also one of the few states with a major presence of foreign automakers that’s in the UAW’s traditional Midwestern stronghold.

“Everyone’s trying to figure out, who are they going after first? And how successful are they going to be?” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the labor and industry group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Maurice “Mo” Davison, the UAW’s top official in Indiana and Kentucky, would not disclose what’s in store for the plants here. It’s clear, though, that the union needs to replenish its membership. The number of active UAW members in Indiana has fallen 57 percent since 2000, from 68,723 to 29,706 in October, according to a spokesperson at the union’s Detroit headquarters.

In addition to seeing General Motors pull out of Anderson, the UAW has lost the Navistar engine plant on Indianapolis’ east side, and Ford’s steering systems plant on English Avenue continues a slow wind-down.

GM will close its metal-stamping plant west of downtown this summer. Notably, that closing will come after Davison lost his battle with the local bargaining group, which refused to accept the UAW’s suggestion that it sign a contract with the stamping plant’s potential buyer, JD Norman Industries.

Davison, who started his own career at Chrysler’s long-gone foundry in Indianapolis, played down the historic decline. Instead, he noted that hiring at Detroit’s Big Three surged in 2010, allowing the UAW to add 6,000 members, most of them in Indiana. The total of active and retired members in Indiana and Kentucky is about 99,000.

The hiring trend plays into the union’s new message about how it helped revitalize the American automakers.

“We see what Ford, GM and Chrysler are doing. It’s worked quite well. It’s really turned around,” Davison said.

Keeping out unions

Foreign carmakers have avoided unions in the United States by building plants in less-hospitable territory and keeping wages close to what union members make. They’ve also avoided laying off permanent employees.

Toyota, for example, boasts that it has not laid off a single associate in 25 years. (Toyota and other Japanese carmakers do lay off temps, a work force that can number in the hundreds.)

Toyota’s no-layoff record applies to its plant in Princeton, where an entire line was shut down for three months in 2009 after the company consolidated assembly of the Tundra pickup truck to Texas. Toyota workers now build the Sienna minivan, Highlander and Sequoia SUVs.

“There was some shared sacrifice at all levels,” Toyota spokesman Mike Goss said. The company cut executive pay and halted a team-member bonus program, among other measures to deal with the downturn.

“Many of those things have been re-instituted now that things have turned around,” Goss said.

Similarly, Subaru Executive Vice President Tom Easterday noted that Subaru is the only automaker in the United States that has given raises for 20 consecutive years, and it has maintained premium-free health coverage.

UAW officials think that if the foreign firms have any weaknesses, it’s on issues of safety or fair treatment.

“Typically when we do get called, it isn’t about wages,” Davison said.

Workers at Toyota’s Georgetown, Ky., plant complained to the UAW office in Indianapolis about getting hurt on the job, then being forced to take settlements and leave the company, Davison said. The national labor-backed coalition Jobs With Justice picked up on the grievances by mounting a publicity campaign in 2007 and petitioning for changes at the plant.

The campaign failed to sway Toyota executives, who refused to meet with the coalition and issued a rebuttal of its complaints.

Labor observers are at a loss to predict where the UAW might find its first opening.

“It’s absolutely true that the best way to encourage union organizing is to do something really stupid” to anger employees, said Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a professor of labor and employment law at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law.

At the Japanese-owned plants, he said, “Management has done a good job of not creating upset workers.”

Building loyalty

Sue Helper, an economics professor at Case Western University in Cleveland, described the Honda plants that she has observed in Ohio as “extremely well-managed.” The Japanese firms’ practice of paying idled workers to train and retool their lines is a “great way to build loyalty,” she said.

Perhaps that’s why the UAW’s first advance on the foreign firms was not a stereotypical demonstration but a written proposal, outlining 11 “principles for fair union elections.”

According to the ground rules, both sides would refrain from intimidation, neither side would promise increases in pay and benefits, and the union would have equal access to employees for communication.

“You don’t talk negative about each other, you don’t belittle each other,” Davison explained. “You just put out the facts.”

And if a work force rejects the union, the UAW says it will walk away.

King told The Wall Street Journal he would wait to see whether the automakers agree to the ground rules before launching any bare-knuckled tactics, which could include pickets at dealerships and at sports events the firms sponsor.

In the more than 20 years since Japanese automakers began their ascent in the marketplace, the UAW has gained no more than a toehold in their plants. The union had an early presence in a Toyota-GM plant in California, which has closed. It’s also at the Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Ill.

Indiana was one of the first states to roll out the welcome mat for Japanese automakers. Subaru opened in Lafayette in 1989, only three years after GM opened its truck assembly near Fort Wayne, which has more than 3,100 union members.

Subaru’s position on the union is spelled out in the employee handbook: “By joining together as a team, we can best accomplish our mutual goals—assuring the success of the Company and providing greater opportunities for job security for you and your family. We do not believe that a third party such as a union is necessary at SIA.”

Honda, which opened its plant in Greensburg in 2008, kept out potential rabble-rousers from Anderson and Muncie by hiring only people who lived in one of 20 counties that, needless to say, did not include Madison or Delaware.

The company, which also refused to hire anyone willing to move to one of the approved counties, claimed the policy was meant to prevent weather-related absenteeism. Whatever Honda’s intent, the residency requirement has been a successful union-aversion strategy in Ohio as well, Helper said.

Ambitious new leader

The game-changer for the UAW was King’s election last June, Dziczek said.

“He brought organizing to the president’s office,” she said. “This is something that’s near and dear to his heart.”

This is also the first time the union has explicitly stated “partnership in the mission of the employer” as one of its principles.

“The UAW’s evolving before our very eyes,” she said.

Some of the union’s traditional methods would be impossible at Toyota in Princeton, said Frank Hudek, who helped organize his own plant, Pittsburgh Glass in Evansville.

Because buildings sit so far from a public street, Hudek said, it would be difficult to hand out fliers. And workers inside the plant couldn’t wear T-shirts or buttons to show their support because they have to wear uniforms.

“There’s probably issues that would interest them in the union,” Hudek said of Toyota’s Princeton workers. “It’s hard to get in there.”•

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