Auto unions turn South

Dwindling membership elsewhere is behind renewed organizing efforts in less-industrialized states


WOODSTOCK, Ala. -- As Jeremy Kimbrell watches thousands of United Auto Workers lose their jobs to plant closings at General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., he finds a silver lining.

The workers aren't to blame, says Kimbrell, a pro-union activist at a nonunion Mercedes-Benz plant near Tuscaloosa, Ala. Their customers took a different route and went for more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Now the unionized workers at GM and Ford are getting buyouts. "They're getting pensions. They have guarantees, and we have none. I believe the union did their job," he said.

With foreign automakers such as Mercedes, Hyundai and Nissan adding or expanding auto plants in places such as Alabama and Mississippi, the South looks to be the best hope for the United Auto Workers and other industrial unions to reverse slides in membership and influence.

But unions face a serious uphill battle at Mercedes and other Southern plants. Workers such as Kimbrell make $27 an hour, the same as UAW members and about twice as much as the average factory worker in Alabama.

Still, he worries that he could fall victim to the same market forces that have claimed UAW jobs, only without the same protections.

The Mercedes plant builds only large sport utility vehicles, and Kimbrell notes: "The only advantage we have is being in the luxury segment, where gas mileage isn't a priority. It's still an issue.

"Manufacturing is a roller-coaster ride, and we've been fortunate to be on the high side of that. But in such a competitive industry, we know that a valley's coming and we have no protection when it does."

So far, it's been no-go for the UAW at the "transplants," dating to when Honda opened the first in Marysville, Ohio, in 1982.

Instead of activists such as Kimbrell, unions are more likely to find workers such as Diane Pierson, who drives a forklift truck at the Mercedes plant and has passed out anti-union fliers.

"Why do we need a union? We have good pay and benefits, and they do not treat us unfairly," says Pierson, 47, a single mother who worked two full-time jobs to make ends meet before Mercedes hired her five years ago.

She had earned $8 an hour at a factory that made window screen wire and $11 at a sawmill, and the benefits "stunk," she says.

"There aren't many jobs where you get paid like this for 40 hours. Some people forget where they came from. We didn't have these kinds of jobs before they came here," she said.

The question of whether the unions are in any better position to win representation in the South is arising again partly because domestic auto employment is shrinking. The UAW has lost more than 900,000 members since it peaked at 1.5 million workers in 1979, and more jobs are expected to disappear as domestic automakers retrench further.

Faced with such a precipitous membership decline, the UAW made organizing a priority at its national convention in June. The union voted to spend up to $60 million over the next four years on organizing, advertising and lobbying on such issues as fair trade and health care.

The UAW identified the transplant automakers as a target. Already the union, along with a competitor - the Machinists union - is active in the region.

While wages, benefits and legal restrictions are high enough to keep the unions on the outside looking in, experts say that over the long term, enough grievances - small and large - could pile up to give the unions entree.

The latest attempt to organize has been by the Machinists, which mounted a drive in March at the request of pro-union workers after a UAW campaign fizzled out before it came to a vote.

A recent meeting in the Machinists' office in Woodstock, Ala., a tiny town about 5 miles from the plant, drew about 10 pro-union workers, who acknowledged they are well-paid but groused about how the company's control at the nine-year-old plant makes them uneasy about their future.

"Everything [in writing] from Mercedes says what I get can be changed at any time - my pay, my benefits, my pension," said Harold Fleenor, 50, a former coal miner with eight years at the plant.

"Everybody at Mercedes [management] has a contract. I don't. If they get fired, they get a severance package," he said.

Among other beefs are that Mercedes hires "temporary" workers for $15 an hour and keeps them up to 30 months, with no promise they will become full time. Besides that, seniority does not put a worker in line for promotions.

Officially, the company says it is "neutral" on whether workers organize, with plant spokeswoman Linda Sewell saying, "The decision is up to the team members."

But pro-union workers say Mercedes tries to block organizing activities while encouraging employees to speak against the union.

When the plant opened in 1997, it had 1,900 workers and capacity to build 65,000 vehicles. After a series of expansions the past three years, the plant employs 4,500 and can build 160,000 vehicles per year.

Don Barker, the head of the Machinists organizing team for the Mercedes plant, says that having so many new hires, who start at about $16 an hour and reach $27 in two years, could make his job tougher.

"For a lot of them, this is the best job they've ever had," he said. But he thinks the Machinists union can get enough support to hold a vote by next spring.

Paul Clark, a labor and industrial relations professor at Pennsylvania State University, says the Bush administration's pro-business stance has made it tougher for unions to organize.

"There are a lot of hurdles they have to overcome. The climate overall in this country isn't favorable to unions, and there really hasn't been any significant momentum in organizing industrial workers in the South," Clark said.

Rick Popely writes for the Chicago Tribune

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