UAW: Do or Die at DENSO?
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Facing falling membership, the United Auto Workers (UAW) is rapidly expanding into non-automotive industries like education and health care. Meanwhile, the UAW continues its full-court press against Toyota and Honda's American factories. So far, the union's attempts to transplant unionism into the transplants' plants have been an abject failure. But try they must. And now there's a new object of their affections: Japanese parts maker DENSO.
Sean McAlinden, analyst for the Center for Automotive Research, outlines the target– and the stakes. "For the survival of the union, they have to start organizing the Toyota system in North America. Right at the head of the line is DENSO.''
DENSO is Japan's largest auto-parts company. Twenty-one percent of DENSO's total $31.1b annual sales come from North America. Stateside, DENSO has ten factories in six states employing over 6,800 [non-union] employees. DENSO supplies all three U.S. automakers and Toyota (which owns 23 percent of the company). In North America, 45 percent of their business lies with The Big 2.8. And here's where the plot thickens.
The Big 2.8 are currently negotiating their UAW contracts. One of their main goals:
dump transfer responsibility for retirees' health care onto the union via a union-administered Voluntary Employees' Beneficiary Association (VEBA) superfund. The union is fully aware that Wall Street is hot for the deal, which means the automakers want the VEBA more than anything else (save sales). The UAW is using this leverage to their full advantage.
U.S. labor laws allow employers to openly campaign against a union's attempts to organize their workers. UAW negotiators have threatened to oppose a VEBA unless the U.S. auto manufacturers pressure DENSO to "remain neutral" while the UAW tries to organize their workers.
According to Bloomberg, General Motors has indicated a willingness to
roll over do as the union asks. No surprise there: GM has the most to gain from a UAW-run VEBA (and the most to lose if they don't set one up). The jury's still out on Ford's and Chrysler's reaction. But let's face it: if a mobster was leaning on sports promoter to pressure a fighter into taking a dive, it would be called extortion. Apparently, when the union does the same sort of thing, it's called "negotiation."
No matter what you call, this does not bode well. If The Big 2.8 are doing business with DENSO, it's because DENSO can supply the best parts for the lowest price. Applying pressure to DENSO could triger a counter-strike (so to speak). While 45 percent of DENSO's North American business comes from Detroit, that's 45 percent of the 21 percent of the company's total business that's done in North America, or just over 10 percent of the total. If DENSO tells the UAW's Detroit puppets to go pound sand, the company retains 90 percent of their current business. Safe!
But not so safe for Detroit. How long do you think it would take GM and Friends to find other suppliers, and how many UAW production lines do you think they'd have to shut down in the interim?
Alternatively, DENSO could agree to step aside and allow the UAW to
plunder organize its workers. The cost of the parts they produce will rise accordingly. The Big 2.8 are complaining that union labor costs are driving them out of business. If Detroit's looking for ways to cut production costs and increase profits, forcing their suppliers into a situation where they'll have to charge more probably isn't a helpful strategy.
Hopefully, GM and the others will come to their senses and refuse to play the UAW's game. If they give on this one, they'll show the UAW how desperate they are. They'll signal the UAW that they're willing to be the union's bitch in other power struggles. But The Big 2.8 want that VEBA so bad it hurts. So is it damned if they do, damned if they don't? More like same old, same old. Once again, it's a question of short-term versus long-term thinking.
If there's one thing American automakers need to learn, it's how to say no to those forces that have steered them onto the edge of the abyss, and hold fast for a brighter future. While there's no doubt that GM, Ford and Chrysler need to rethink their own role in creating their current predicament, acquiescing to the union's ambitions at this critical stage of the game would be like cutting off their nose so they can smell better. Going along to get along didn't work then. It won't work now.
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