UAW Speaks More Softly, Still Carries Big Stick

United Auto Workers President Bob King 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.

But in fact, union leaders are beginning to realize that a head-on organizational drive will not work. Workers have consistently rejected UAW efforts at unionization. The union has repeatedly failed to organize employees at factories owned by Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai Motor Co, Kia, Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.

In a recent interview, King said, “We are not going to announce a target at all. … We are not going to create a fight.” Later in the interview, he acknowledged 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 the workers do not want to join it, so they need to muscle their way in though the boardroom. 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. Chief among the Principles is taking away the secret ballot from workers via card-check elections. Companies that 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 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.”

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 attacked an automaker, saying “There are some real concerns we have with human rights and civil rights with Nissan.”

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. 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 more than $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 King’s nice-guy talk, the UAW’s strategy of confrontation will continue, at the expense of both business and workers.