The United Auto Workers announced a drive to organize the U.S. factories of Toyota, Tesla, Subaru, Honda and the nation’s other non-unionized automakers, hoping to dramatically expand its membership after negotiating record contracts with Detroit’s Big Three.
The UAW unveiled a website where workers at 13 different companies can electronically sign union authorization cards in a first step toward attempting to organize their factories.
The UAW said workers at the non-unionized factories were helping organize the campaign, which will target 150,000 employees across the companies: BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Lucid, Mazda, Mercedes, Nissan, Rivian, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.
Toyota, Subaru and Honda all have major manufacturing operations in Indiana.
The UAW faces a tough battle. Its past efforts to organize the automakers have failed, partly because many of the factories are located in southern states, where local laws, politics and culture make it harder for unions to organize.
Still, union leaders are hoping to capitalize on the big pay increases the UAW won for workers in new contracts with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. Those contracts include wage increases of at least 25 percent over 4 1/2 years, as well as higher company contributions to retirement accounts and more paid time off.
The union said thousands of workers at the non-unionized companies have already contacted the UAW and signed cards in recent weeks, encouraged by the Detroit Three contracts. It declined to provide more specific figures.
In a video announcing the campaign, UAW President Shawn Fain made the same arguments he did to Big Three workers this year as he rallied them to strike: Companies are making big profits while workers fall behind, he said.
“You don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck. You don’t have to worry about how you’re going to pay your rent or feed your family while the company makes billions,” Fain said. “A better life is out there. It starts with you: UAW.”
Many of the non-unionized companies, including Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and Volkswagen, have given their U.S. workers double-digit pay increases in recent weeks in what analysts call a clear attempt to ward off any unionization drive.
Asked about the UAW’s campaign Wednesday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said he thinks unions “try to create negativity in a company and create a sort of lords and peasants situation.” He said Tesla handsomely rewards its workers with stock options that have made some millionaires. If the company is eventually unionized, “it will be because we deserve it and we failed in some way,” Musk said during a webcast talk at a New York Times event, though he added that he has been open in the past to the idea of his workers voting on union representation.
The UAW’s new campaign website singles out Musk, saying he’s the richest man in the world, overseeing a company with booming sales. “The question is, will Tesla workers get their fair share? It’s time for Tesla workers to Stand Up and fight for more,” the website said.
In an emailed statement, Honda said it has built a successful U.S. business over 40 years partly by “maintaining competitive wages and benefits.”
“We do not believe an outside party would enhance the excellent employment experience of our associates, nor would it improve upon the outstanding track record of success and employment stability Honda manufacturing associates in America have achieved,” the statement said.
Nissan said it “respects the right of employees to determine who should represent their interests” but that it believes “our workplace is stronger without the involvement of a third party.”
Hyundai said that it “provides excellent wages and benefits” and that its U.S. workers “have not shown an interest in union representation.” Subaru said it is hiking wages in January and strives “to do the right thing” for employees.
Volkswagen and Rivian declined to comment. The other companies didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment or couldn’t be reached.
The campaign comes amid a growing movement of workplace activism, as workers across a variety of industries strike and agitate for better pay and benefits. Many have achieved big gains this year, including UPS drivers, Hollywood actors and writers, and health-care workers.
Those victories have piqued public interest in unions, but translating that into new members won’t be easy. Union membership has generally declined in recent decades, as the UAW itself shows: The union’s ranks have fallen sharply from a peak of about 1.5 million workers in the 1970s, to about 400,000 members today in a variety of industries, including health care and academia. About 150,000 members work for automakers.
Many of the automakers the UAW is targeting have heavily unionized workforces in their home countries and may not be intent on playing hardball, said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor and labor expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
Still, their U.S. factories are located in states that can be hostile to unions, he said.
When the UAW tried to organize Volkswagen facilities in Tennessee, the company maintained a neutral stance on the campaign, but many local politicians voiced opposition, helping sway workers against the effort, Rosenfeld said.
In long-standing union states such as Michigan, “you hear story after story of GM workers whose grandfathers were in the union—it gets passed down,” he said. That history doesn’t exist in the South.
Getting workers to sign union authorization cards is typically the first step in organizing a workforce. Once 30 percent of eligible workers sign, they have a right by law to call an election for whether the workplace wants to unionize, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In some cases, employers will voluntarily recognize a union without a vote, once a majority of workers have signed cards.
The UAW is aiming for a high level of card-signing to bolster its campaign. Officials said that if an effort to organize hits the 30 percent threshold at a company, it will publicly announce an organizing committee at the automaker and continue pushing to recruit more workers. If it hits 50 percent, the union said it will organize a rally with Fain and workers at the factory. After 70 percent, the UAW will demand that the company recognize the union. If the company won’t, the union will ask the NLRB to hold an election.