Behind the UAW’s Aw Shucks Smile

Bob King’s pants are on fire. Or they would be if the old saying (“liar liar…” ) were true. The United Auto Workers (UAW) President announced a change in strategy earlier in December, saying that his union would not target specific automakers in right to work states for unionization. Instead, King claims that the UAW will use a more diplomatic, less adversarial approach to organizing employees at these plants.

Conveniently, the shift comes less than a month before the end of a year in which King vowed to organize at least one non-union automaker. Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, told the Wall Street Journal that the change in tactics is really “a retreat.” He added, “I think they are in the embarrassing position of trying to announce an organizing drive that has yet to come to fruition.”

Indeed, the truth behind King’s announcement is that union leaders are beginning to realize that a head-on organizational drive will not work. The UAW has tried that time and again and workers have consistently rejected its efforts. The union has repeatedly failed to organize employees at factories owned by Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai Motor Co, Kia, Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.

So what is the UAW to do? In a recent interview, King tries to portray himself as the nice guy saying, “We are not going to announce a target at all.… We are not going to create a fight.” Later in the interview King acknowledges the difficult spot he and his union find themselves in — and a way out of it. “It really is ultimately up to the companies,” he said.

Therein lies the rub. The union knows that workers do not want to join it, so they need to muscle their way in through the board room. In pursuing that strategy, the UAW remains as aggressive as ever, even as it claims to change its tone.

Early in 2011, the UAW unveiled its Principles for Fair Union Elections (see also “The UAW’s Last Gamble” in the March 21 National Review). Chief among the Principles is taking away the secret ballot from workers in unionization elections. The UAW would like to see these elections conducted via card-check, whereby a union organizer collects employee signatures on union cards out in the open. Card check opens the door for intimidation because both the union and employer know where each employee stands. Companies which seek to protect the privacy of workers incur the wrath of violating the UAW’s Principles. The punishment for not agreeing to the Principles is to attack the company’s reputation and thus increase public and financial pressure until the company bows to the union’s demands.

In January King said that if companies resist his union’s organizing efforts, the UAW “will launch a global campaign to brand that company a human rights violator.” Thus, for all of King’s current civil tone, the UAW remains committed to attack companies that resist its organizing efforts. The same day that King stated his illusory shift in strategy, he also announced that the UAW would target a foreign automaker, saying, “There are some real concerns we have with human rights and civil rights with Nissan.”

The announcement came a week after the union picketed about 75 dealerships of a non-union car company. What was so important the union sent out its members to picket so many dealerships? The UAW claims a South Korean subcontractor of a part supplier to the company — that is, someone who was not even directly employed by the auto manufacturer — was let go after filing a sexual harassment claim.

If the allegation is true, it is unfortunate, but the UAW seems to be really stretching here. Is the union really that concerned over a sexual harassment claim by someone half a world away who was not even employed by the company in question? Or is its goal to apply pressure to force the company to accede to its organizing efforts?

If the tactics of the UAW seem desperate, that is because they are. The union’s total membership has dropped to 377,000 down from a high of about 1.5 million in 1979. Since 2004, its membership has dropped precipitously by 42 percent. As King himself has bluntly stated, “If we don’t organize these transnationals, I don’t think there’s a long-term future for the UAW — I really don’t.”

Even with its membership plunging, the UAW remains a formidable force. It has over $1 billion in assets that it can bring to bear on an organizing campaign. Indeed, the UAW has been busy on that front. It reported spending $642,000 to target Toyota in 2010, including brochures, banners, and other campaign expenses.

Actions speak louder than words. For all of Bob King’s nice-guy talk, the UAW’s strategy of confrontation will continue, at the expense of both business and workers.