by Jamie Butters
Detroit Free Press Business Writer
DETROIT — The UAW has organized about 2,000 workers at five Dana Corp. plants from Michigan to Tennessee as the union seeks to rebuild its active ranks and regain power in the auto industry.
Along the way, the union faces opposition not only from workers who don’t want a union but also from those who want a tougher union that would fight and win better wages, benefits and working conditions. To them, the UAW has become too conciliatory as it strives to gain members.
In many ways, the Dana case reflects the UAW’s strategy to cope with declining membership. The union is finding common ground with U.S.-based suppliers that do most of their business with Detroit’s unionized automakers: Both feel the squeeze of competition from low-wage countries like Mexico and China. And it is harder to handle while their biggest customers are losing market share. So they are meeting halfway: The companies don’t fight the union’s organizing efforts, and the union doesn’t try to extract major concessions.
“We really believe that, in order to keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S., you don’t need employers and unions fighting. We need to be working in partnership to keep jobs in this country,” said Bob King, the UAW’s vice president in charge of organizing.
At the same time as the Detroit automakers have lost market share and streamlined their operations, other UAW industries, such as making airplanes and tractors, have also dwindled. The result: UAW membership has fallen by more than half from a peak of 1.5 million in 1969 to less than 650,000.
Newly organized members are not listed on the union’s active membership rolls until they have a contract and start paying dues.
None of the Dana plants, which were organized late last year, has contracts yet. One in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, is to choose its bargaining committee this week, and negotiations have begun at the 1,000-person plant in Elizabethtown, Ky.
Two other Dana plants are still collecting signatures to authorize the union in so-called card-check elections, which recognize the union once a majority of workers sign authorization cards.
But some workers said they are uncomfortable with the idea of the union and management working together, and they say they are entitled to the same voting process used in most government elections.
“If they had done a secret-ballot election, I would not have had a problem with” the union authorization, said Clarice Atherholt, an 18-year worker at the brake-assembly plant in Upper Sandusky. “This card-check takes away your right to privacy.”
She has petitioned to decertify the union, but the National Labor Relations Board dismissed her plea, she said.
The UAW’s King defended the card-check voting, saying it was the preferred election process when the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935. Secret ballots, he said, came about later as a concession to businesses.
These days, auto suppliers, such as Collins & Aikman Corp. and Johnson Controls Inc., use card-checks as a way to welcome the UAW, which they see as important for winning new business with the Detroit automakers.
“Good labor relations is a competitive advantage,” said Dana spokesman Gary Corrigan.
Robert Hinchliffe, the auto-supplier analyst at brokerage UBS, is one of the union’s new, nontraditional friends. Union officials even travel with him sometimes when he meets with clients.
The 21st-Century UAW, Hinchliffe said, isn’t interested in winning a rich contract for workers if it is going to make the plant lose money and close before signing a second contract.
For now, the union is pushing to restock its membership, until it again has enough people in its ranks to give it power.
But not everybody is happy.
Joe Williams, who works at the Collins & Aikman plant in Oklahoma City, said the UAW has valued the company’s financial health over his local’s demands for better pay.
Donna Stinson, who wants the Bristol, Tenn., organizing vote overturned, argues that all this union-management cooperation leaves the workers out of the process.
“In my opinion, the UAW is only hurting themselves. People are going to realize . . . you’re not getting anything for” the dues, she said.
But union leaders stress that working together benefits companies, the union and the workers.
In a speech to industry executives this month, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger articulated the union’s sympathy:
“To those of you from supplier firms, who have sat across the table from a customer who is demanding steep cuts as the price of keeping their business, we can tell you: We feel your pain. . . . We think it’s in everyone’s interest to develop long-term partnerships to enhance both job security and business stability throughout the auto industry.”
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