Historians invariably cite the sit-down strikes at the country's auto plants in the 1930s as a key to the spread of unionization throughout the automobile industry and throughout American industry generally.
The strikes helped establish the United Auto Workers Union – the UAW – as one of the country's most economically and politically powerful, progressive and influential organizations, and its president, Walter Reuther, as one of the country's important leaders.
But that was then, when the American automobile industry was virtually unchallenged by foreign automakers. Now U.S. automakers face heavy competition from Asian and German firms, especially from the firms that have opened plants in the United States. The steady growth of the non-union plants has been accompanied by a steady weakening of the UAW. The union's membership, once in the millions, has declined to 350,000.
There are 14 foreign-owned assembly plants and several dozen parts factories now operating in the American South and Midwest – "transplants," as the UAW calls the foreign-owned facilities. The transplants have become a major part of the U.S. auto industry, accounting for the industry's only growth in the past 30 years. They employ about 50,000 workers, and as Jane Slaughter of Labor Notes reports, the workers produced more than 40 percent of all vehicles made in the United States last year.
If the UAW is to regain its power and influence and standing as a cornerstone of the labor movement, it will have to organize the transplants, whose owners are generally as hostile to unions as their American predecessors were in the thirties.
Organizing the transplants could very well be as tough – or tougher – as organizing U.S. plants was eight decades ago. In the thirties, many auto workers were already organized and able to act as a strong unified body to demand union contracts – and get them. But today, the UAW is faced with having to first convince workers to join the union and then make a unified demand for contracts from their staunchly anti-union employers, most of them based in the heavily anti-union South.
As a recent report from Reuters News Service noted, workers in the transplants "have rebuffed the union repeatedly," in large part because of heavy employer pressures on them, including not-so-veiled threats of moving their plants elsewhere.
The UAW is initially seeking union rights for workers at the facilities owned and operated by the German companies Volkswagen and Daimler. The union sees the German companies as relatively easier targets than the Japanese and South Korean manufacturers who also operate U.S. plants.
Reuters found that the UAW's failure to organize workers at the foreign-owned facilities has put the union in a financial bind. It has forced the UAW to sell some of its assets and shift money from its fund for financing strikes in order to pay for its operations. That includes trying to organize workers in the foreign-owned plants at the same time that the decline in the union's membership has greatly lessened its dues income.
Despite its financial problems, the union is planning a worldwide $60 million campaign aimed at pressuring the transplants into agreeing to elections in which their workers could freely vote for or against unionization. The UAW is hoping to get strong support for elections from other unions and its Democratic political allies.
The UAW will also need broad public support, and that may not be easy to get, given the widespread popular opinion that the automobile industry's problems stem at least in part from the relatively high pay and benefits the union has won from auto makers. The union is trying to overcome that by promising that contracts resulting from the voting would commit the UAW to sharing responsibility with employers for "quality, innovation, flexibility and value." But if the union concedes what workers perceive as too much, it may lose many potential new members.
The situation facing the United Auto Workers, long one of America's most important institutions, is indeed drastic – so drastic, says UAW President Bob King, that if the union fails to effectively organize the foreign-owned plants, the union will have no future.
King insists he is not exaggerating. "I have said that repeatedly," he declared, "and I believe it."
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.