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Published: Monday, 1/17/2011

UAW's Hail-Mary pass

These have been hard years for the once-mighty United Auto Workers. Thirty years ago, the union counted 1.5 million members, including virtually every hourly auto worker in the United States. Now the UAW has barely 350,000 members, and a third of them are in fields other than the auto industry.

Thousands of U.S. auto workers, including those at Honda's plant in Marysville, Ohio, aren't members of the UAW at all. Foreign-based automakers generally have built their “transplant” factories as far from Detroit as possible. They have fought hard, and successfully, to persuade their workers not to join the UAW.

The only transplant facilities that have been organized have been a rare few joint ventures with U.S. manufacturers. The UAW's new president, Bob King, is budgeting $60 million and planning major efforts aimed at winning transplant workers the right at least to hold union elections.

“We just have to convince them we're not the evil empire that they think,” Mr. King says. That may take some doing.

When Japanese automakers began building cars in the United States, they made polite noises about perhaps working with the UAW. Now they feel less need to do so. Told of union leaders' plans, a Honda spokesman said the company has “no interest in a discussion with them.”

The UAW badly needs more than a discussion. Some labor experts think that if the union doesn't find a way to organize the transplants, it is doomed.

As a young man, Mr. King worked in an auto plant even after he earned his law degree; he said he hoped to be the next Walter Reuther someday. Winning the hearts and minds of America's generally satisfied and unorganized auto workers in the transplant factories might have been a tall order even for Mr. Reuther. For the UAW, it may be a matter of survival.

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