UAW President Shawn Fain has repeatedly talked about the UAW “bump.” It’s the wage increase workers at foreign automaker transplants received in the wake of the 25% pay hike UAW members got from GM, Ford and Stellantis. Now he’s looking to see if they want to join his “movement.”
The United Auto Workers is mounting an ambitious campaign to recruit new members to join the 150,000 workers at more than a dozen car factories in southern and western United States into the teeth experts predict of what is certain to be fierce opposition from employers experts.
Thousands of non-union autoworkers are signing cards at the new UAW webpage, UAW.org/join, and asking to join the UAW. The organizing drive, the UAW says, is aimed from employees of 13 different companies, including BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Lucid, Kia, Mercedes, Nissan, Rivian, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo.
On its new organizing web site, the UAW promises confidentiality to workers expressing an interest in joining the UAW. But the union says several of the workers interested in seeing the UAW organize their plants are speaking out publicly despite the potential for harassment.
Moves by transplants
Toyota moved to raise wages at its plants across the U.S. after the UAW won record contracts with Detroit’s three automakers, But Jeff Allen, a veteran team member at the Georgetown, Kentucky plant, who’s had two work-related surgeries, said the raise won’t dissuade workers from organizing.
“We’ve lost so much since I started here, and the raise won’t make up for that,” said Allen. “It won’t make up for the health benefits we’ve lost; it won’t make up for the wear and tear on our bodies. We still build a quality vehicle. People take pride in that, but morale is at an all-time low. They can give you a raise today and jack up your health benefits tomorrow. A union contract is the only way to win what’s fair.”
The charismatic Fain is the key to the effort, says one expert.
“Going forward, it is quite possible that (UAW President Shawn) Fain’s approach will result in more successful organizing drives for the UAW,” said Michelle Kaminski, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations. He is demonstrating a willingness to fight to get employees the best possible wages, benefits, and working conditions.
“Employees in non-union automotive firms, and in other industries, may see this and think they want this, too. However, the labor law context in the US still makes it very challenging to form new unions here.”
Timing is everything
The UAW campaign, however, comes in midst of an upsurge in union organizing across the southern U.S. The International Association of Machinists is fighting to broaden union representation at Atlanta-based Delta Airlines and the United Steel Workers recently organized a plant belonging to busmaker, BlueBird, in Fort Valley, Georgia.
In a new video released for the organizing drive, Fain says autoworkers face the same issues whether they work for the Detroit Three, Germany automakers Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW, which face strong unions in their home country but have no labor contract in the U.S., or Asian carmakers such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, Subaru and Kia or in the emerging taxpayer-supported EV sector with companies such as Tesla, Rivian and Lucid.
“Workers across the country, from the West to the Midwest and especially in the South, are reaching out to join our movement and to join the UAW. So go to uaw.org/join. The money is there. The time is right. And the answer is simple. You don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck. You don’t have to worry about how you’re going to pay your rent or feed your family while the company makes billions. A better life is out there,” Fain notes on the video.
Health benefits a selling point
Non-union autoworkers lag UAW autoworkers in wages, benefits, and rights on the job, Fain adds.
“Hyundai would be so much better with a union,” says Kissy Cox, a production worker at the company’s plant in Montgomery, Alabama. “I’m on workers’ comp right now because I just had carpal tunnel surgery.
“In my area, we struggle to keep a full staff because so many people are out injured. Being in the union, having a real say for safer jobs, it would be a better way of life for all of us.”
The tight labor market since the pandemic also is driving workers to demand more from the non-union automakers, according to employees calling for UAW representation.
“The company is having trouble hiring people,” said Jeremy Kimbrell, a measurement machine operator at the Mercedes-Benz Tuscaloosa assembly plant in Alabama. “They introduced two tiers here, so they’re having such a hard time keeping the new workers. It’s just a revolving door. A whole lot of people who never talked union before, they know we have to stand up. They’re saying give me a card to sign.”