The UAW and the Foreign Auto "Transplants": It's Do Or Die Time

Last Updated Mar 23, 2011 3:09 PM EDT

There are really two Detroits: the battered Michigan metropolis we all know, historic home to the auto industry; and "Detroit South," home to the foreign "transplant" carmakers, from Japan and Germany, all of which have built plants in southern states. Big difference? Detroit North is unionized. Detroit South is not. But the United Auto Workers wants to change that.

New UAW president Bob King is taking a tough stance. He's declared that at least one transplant automaker will get a taste of the UAW lash and see its shops go union in 2011.

That the UAW has managed to unionize exactly nothing in Detroit South since foreign car companies first breached our shores doesn't seem to discourage him in the least. Nor does the fact that the UAW has done little but make concessions to the Big Three carmakers in Detroit North, accepting for example starting wages at half what they once were, due mainly to the fact that that's what the transplants pay.

Is the sun finally setting on the mighty UAW?
The UAW was, at its peak, the most powerful industrial union ever organized. Now King, somewhat disingenuously, claims that it's fighting for its survival. Indeed, it has seen its membership plummet over the decades. But is it really adopting the right strategy for unionizing the Detroit South plants?

Over at the Huffington Post, Paul A. London doesn't think so. He argues that the UAW should be pressing for partnerships with the automakers, to create vehicles that will solve the industry's core problem: unpredictable gas prices. He's got a point, but is naively overlooking the staunchly anti-union political identity of the U.S. South. Senators and Congressmen of a certain rightward political inclination in South Carolina and Tennessee hear "union" and see only one color: red.

Taking the case directly to the transplants is the way to go
The only thing the UAW has going for it is the workers at the plants it plans to target. Forward-looking partnerships, with the the overarching goal of making vehicles fleets more fuel-efficient, amount to a useless gambit because the automakers are going to do this anyway. And if they can get workers to build them for half what the Big Three will have to pay in the Midwest... well, you can see how this would benefit both their bottom lines and the coffers of the states in which they do business.

King's old school approach therefore makes the most sense. The UAW can't scare the southern politicians, but it can scare the German and and Japanese. The foreign automakers know they have the support of local governments, but they also recognize that they operate in the U.S. as industrial guests.

They also share with the UAW a much better understanding of business conditions in the automotive sector. In Detroit North, union workers can't be arbitrarily dropped. In Detroit South, with its "right to work" laws, they can. So a job with Toyota (TM) or BMW might seem great when times are good. But when they aren't, the assembly line worker for Ford (F) has a better deal.

The UAW has changed enough
In order the help the Big Three stay alive, the UAW has made numerous concessions. But at this juncture, it's running the risk of sealing its doom by changing too much. The truth is that workers are still workers, and management -- whether it's American or Japanese -- is still management. At recent events have shown, the only thing standing between industrial labor and double-digit, long-term unemployment is collective bargaining. The individual doesn't stand a chance.

So King is right to raise the UAW up to what's left of its full height for this battle. Because the alternative isn't irrelevance. It's extinction.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons