17 June 2010

New UAW Chief Says Organizing Toyota a Top Priority


The new head of the United Auto Workers on Thursday vowed to "pound Toyota" as part of a stepped-up campaign to bring union representation to factories operated by Asian automakers in the United States.

UAW President Bob King vowed to bring protesters, including retirees, to picket outside Toyota dealerships with banners charging that the automaker puts "Profits Before People."

"We're going to pound on Toyota until they recognize the First-Amendment rights of workers to come into the UAW," King told over 1,000 union delegates at a convention in Detroit.

Toyota and the UAW are at odds because of a decision by the Japanese automaker to close a Fremont, California plant that it had been operating in partnership with General Motors Co.

That plant, where workers had UAW representation, had produced the Corolla and Tacoma models for Toyota.

In a move that further angered the union, Toyota announced on Thursday that it would shift production of the Corolla sedan to a still-unfinished plant in Mississippi.

King said Toyota was looking to cut labor costs and free itself from union representation. He said the UAW would lobby to have the decision on Corolla reversed at the same time that it pushes to organize other Toyota factories.

"It's outrageous," King said of Toyota's decision to shift Corolla production to Mississippi. "If they're going to act that way, we're going to respond."

A Toyota spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.


The UAW has never succeeded in organizing a major U.S. auto factory apart from those run by the domestic manufacturers -- General Motors, Ford Motor Co (F.N) and Chrysler.

A push to organize Toyota's flagship U.S. factory in Georgetown, Kentucky fizzled in 2007. The union also failed on four separate votes going back to 1989 to win support for a union at a major Nissan factory in Tennessee.

"The only luck we've had has been bad luck," King said.

Toyota's emergence as the largest global automaker in recent years heightened the stakes for the union and its recent safety crisis made it appear vulnerable, union officials say.

King said the UAW would push ahead with a bid to organize Toyota whether or not a bill that would make it easier to establish unions known as the Employee Free Choice Act clears Congress.

Asian auto brands led by Toyota now represent about 46 percent of U.S. auto sales, a larger slice of the market than the Detroit Three combined.

King said that without expanding its base to include workers at Asian "transplant" factories run by the likes of Toyota, Honda Motor Co and Hyundai-Kia, the UAW could no longer safeguard pay for U.S. auto workers.

During the debate over the U.S. government bailout for GM and Chrysler, Republican Senators pushed the union to agree to pay and benefit levels that would be no higher than those offered by Toyota at its U.S. factories.

As part of sweeping concessions granted to the U.S. automakers under a 4-year contract up for negotiation in 2011, the UAW allowed Detroit autoworkers to hire new workers starting at $14 an hour, equivalent to about $29,000 per year.

That wage is about half of the pay for veteran assembly line workers. Both Ford and Chrysler have begun to add new workers at the lower wage rates.

King said he understood rank-and-file frustration after five years of concessions at a time of mounting financial problems for the U.S. auto industry.

But he said the union would not put the U.S. automakers at a competitive disadvantage with an upcoming round of contract demands. "It's not possible to get everything back that we've given up," he said.

UAW membership peaked at near 1.5 million in 1979 and dropped below 400,000 workers last year.

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