Or at least they hope that their epic final charge inspires future generations. Maybe even, becomes the stuff of legends.
I was reminded of all that this week, when I learned that the United Auto Workers union has set aside sixty million dollars in an effort to organize transplant factories. Those are auto plants here in the United States that are owned by foreign automakers, like Toyota.
Many are in the South. None are in Michigan. And the UAW has utterly failed to organize any of the transplant factories, except for a few joint ventures with Detroit automakers.
This is not an accident.
Foreign automakers have deliberately located their plants as far from UAW-influenced areas as possible, and spent heavily in a successful effort to discourage workers from turning to the union.
Meanwhile, during the last two decades, the number of transplant factory workers has steadily increased, while the number of workers represented by the UAW has nosedived.
Thirty years ago, the union Walter Reuther built had more than a million and a half members. The most recent statistics show that has fallen to barely 350,000, many of whom aren‘t auto workers.
Mark Gaffney, head of the AFL-CIO in Michigan, once told me that unless something changed, that by 2012, there would be more U.S. auto workers not represented by the UAW than were represented by the union. If that happened, he hinted, the union would be doomed. Now, new UAW leader Bob King has vowed to do something about it. He isn’t, however, pounding his fist on the table like a 1940s labor leader, vowing to succeed or die trying.
Instead, King told the Automotive News World Congress the other day that he intended to fight for fair union elections in the transplants. “We just have to convince them we’re not the evil empire that they think,” he said. Twenty years ago, when asked about the union, Japanese auto makers generally made polite noises, and at least tried to sound reasonable. Today, they feel less need to do so. When told of King’s remarks, one spokesman sniffed, “Honda has had no dialogue with the UAW, and has no interest in a discussion with them.”
But the UAW needs to try to start that discussion and score some victories. Some think they may be able to succeed with Mercedes Benz before the Japanese and Koreans. For now, all King is saying is that the UAW wants a fair shake.
Last summer, I met a retired Ford manager who told me that years ago, King, who already had a law degree, went to work for him in a plant. Why are you doing this?” the older man asked.
“Because I intend to be the next Walter Reuther someday,” King supposedly told him. One thing‘s for sure. If Bob King can find a way to organize America‘s transplant factories, he’ll give his union a new lease on life. And that would make Walter Reuther very glad.