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Will UAW target Nissan?

CANTON — Top officials of the United Auto Workers have decided for now against targeting a single company in its effort to sign up workers at U.S. factories owned by foreign automakers.

UAW president Bob King told The Associated Press in an interview yesterday that the union’s executive board won’t make any decision until it sees how the automakers react to UAW demands to be allowed to pitch workers and let them vote on joining the union.

There’s no deadline for a decision, but the union already is starting to train workers to demonstrate at dealerships and to recruit workers at foreign-owned plants. Previous efforts to unionize workers at plants run by foreign companies like Honda, Toyota and Nissan have failed.

If the union does focus on one company, Nissan Motor Co. appears to be a lead candidate. Union leaders have discussed Nissan as a target for organizing, according to a person briefed on union meetings.

“It was crystal clear” that Nissan would be targeted, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the meetings are private.

King conceded that Nissan had been discussed at recent union meetings but said any impression that the Japanese automaker was a target came from miscommunication. He said the UAW has received complaints of civil and human rights violations by Nissan from workers and the community, but he did not give specifics.

“We have had some productive discussions with top leaders at Nissan,” King said. “We’re continuing that. We’re hoping that issues can be resolved with them,” he said.

Nissan fired back, saying that King has not contacted anyone in its North American operations about allegations of any rights violations.

“Mr. King’s attempts to disparage Nissan are without merit,” spokesman David Reuter said in the statement. “Our results and our reputation in the communities where we operate speak for themselves, and they contrast sharply with the image that the UAW is now trying to paint of Nissan.”

The union isn’t naming a target company because it probably has had little success in recruiting at any of them, said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

“I think the UAW is not getting as encouraging of results from its organizing campaign as it would like to see, and it’s trying to back off from that now,” Chaison said. “It would be disastrous for the UAW to go to an election stage and lose it.”

King has been trying to pitch the UAW to the companies as a business partner that would empower workers and bring better quality and productivity. The union has asked that Nissan Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., BMW AG, Daimler AG, Volkswagen AG and Hyundai Motor Co./Kia Motors Corp. let workers vote on union representation in a free election.

King said that so far, none of the companies has agreed to an election.

Automakers from Japan, Germany and South Korea employ about 80,000 factory workers in the United States, mainly in southern states away from the UAW’s stronghold in the Great Lakes region.

King said the union’s recent contracts with the Detroit Three automakers should show foreign companies and their workers that the UAW is a good business partner. Earlier this year the UAW agreed to new four-year deals that have no pay raises for most workers but mandate profit-sharing. The deals also bring thousands of additional jobs to UAW-represented factories.

King has made organizing workers at “transnational” auto companies a priority. Earlier this year, he said it was critical for the union’s future.

“If we don’t organize these transnationals, I don’t think there’s a long-term future for the UAW, I really don’t,” King said in a speech at the union’s legislative conference in January. At the time, he expected to pick a target within three months.

The UAW’s membership has fallen to just over 376,000 members, about one quarter of what it was at the peak in 1979. Membership rose 6 percent last year, the first increase since 2004.

UAW southern region director Gary Casteel said the union is talking to three companies in particular, but he would not identify them. “We want to keep talking to workers,” he said.

Even with the new contracts, labor costs at UAW-represented factories remain higher than the transnationals’ costs, according to the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Ford Motor Co.’s total wage and benefit cost is $58 per hour, while General Motors Co. is at $56. Toyota ranks third at $55 per hour and Chrysler is at $52. Nissan’s costs are lower at $47 per hour. Volkswagen has the lowest costs at $38 per hour at its recently opened plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Nissan has about 7,500 workers in the U.S. at auto assembly plants in Smyrna, Tenn., near Nashville and in Canton and at an engine and transmission factory in Decherd, Tenn.


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