Has the UAW Found a Better Road?

Although the United Auto Workers has failed to sign up transplant workers, it's having much better luck among the 500,000 or so workers in the largely nonunion auto parts industry. For years, some union leaders wanted to use the UAW's still-powerful grip on Detroit carmakers to get help organizing the companies that supply components. But little happened. Now, the union is starting to act. In early June, just hours after he was sworn in, UAW President Ronald A. Gettelfinger authorized a carefully planned strike against four Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI) factories that make interior parts for some of the country's best-selling vehicles. It was the opening gambit in a new campaign to reverse the union's sagging membership.

The plan was cunning. The quick two-day strike cost workers little in lost income. But it pinched General Motors Corp. (GM ) and Chrysler Group (DCX ) by shutting down production of their popular Chevy TrailBlazer and Jeep Liberty sport-utility vehicles. Worried about lost sales in a profitable segment and eager to preserve good relations with the UAW, GM and Chrysler played an active behind-the-scenes role by leaning on JCI to settle the dispute, say company insiders.

The result: one of the UAW's biggest organizing breakthroughs in decades, says Sean P. McAlinden, a labor economist at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. In addition to raises of up to $6 an hour, the strikers won a JCI promise not to interfere with UAW efforts to organize some 8,000 workers at the 26 other JCI factories that supply the Big Three. If JCI offers no resistance, the UAW expects to sign up most of them within months. Says JCI spokesman William J. Dawson: The pact "reflects our interests in accommodating the needs of our customers that are represented by the UAW."

The union plans to replicate its strategy at other auto parts makers (table). By putting pressure on carmakers, the UAW hopes to reverse a trend that has cut its parts membership to less than 20% of the industry, vs. more than half in the late '70s. If the plan works, the UAW will become the first U.S. labor group to reunionize a big industrial sector. "We're not a strike-happy union, but we're also not afraid to use a point of leverage to support workers who want UAW representation," Gettelfinger said after the JCI strike.

Despite all the tough talk, it's still not clear whether Gettelfinger will follow through on such a bold plan. The strategy is mostly the brainchild of Bob King, the union's vice-president for organizing, who has long pushed for the idea. But Gettelfinger's predecessor, Stephen P. Yokich, always emphasized salaries for current members. Gettelfinger may feel pressure to do likewise when the Big Three's labor pact expires next year.

The UAW's strategy will hold only if it can unionize all the major suppliers in an industry segment. Otherwise, the companies that remain nonunion could use their lower costs to drive out the unionized competition. So King's plan starts with JCI and includes other makers of interiors. If Gettelfinger remains willing to utilize the union's clout, the auto parts industry could again become a union stronghold.

By Joann Muller in Detroit

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