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UAW launches bid to organize Tesla and 'entire non-union auto sector' in US

FILE PHOTO: UAW's Fain speaks with Biden in attendance in Michigan

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United Auto Workers union said on Wednesday it is launching a first-of-its-kind push to publicly organize the entire nonunion auto sector in the U.S. after winning new contracts with the Detroit Three automakers.

The Detroit-based UAW said workers at 13 nonunion automakers were announcing simultaneous campaigns across the country to join the union, including at Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Rivian, Nissan, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Those automakers employ nearly 150,000 workers at their U.S. assembly plants, about the same number as those employed by the Detroit Three companies with which the UAW just signed new labor agreements, the union said.

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"To all the auto workers out there working without the benefits of a union, now it's your turn," UAW President Shawn Fain said in a video posted on a website urging auto workers to sign electronic cards seeking union representation.

"The money is there. The time is right," he added. "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."

The UAW's deals with General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis included a 25% increase in base wages through 2028, cut the time needed to reach top pay to three years from eight years, boosted the pay of temporary workers by 150% and made them permanent employees.

The UAW detailed its organizing strategy. The union said if 30% of workers at a nonunion plant sign cards seeking to join, it would make that public. If 50% of workers seek to join, the UAW would hold a rally with Fain to tout the effort. At 70% and with an organizing committee in place, the UAW would seek recognition or demand a union representation vote.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, when asked about the UAW's efforts at the New York Times DealBook Summit Wednesday, said: "I disagree with the idea of unions." He said if Tesla is unionized, "it'll be because we deserve it and we failed in some way."

Tesla is the world's largest electric vehicle maker by market value.

Other automakers the UAW is targeting include Honda, Subaru, Mazda, Lucid and Volvo Cars.

Honda was cool to the idea of union representation at its U.S. plants.

"We do not believe an outside party would enhance the excellent employment experience of our associates, nor would it improve upon the outstanding track record of success and employment stability Honda manufacturing associates in America have achieved," it said in a statement.

A Subaru spokesman said the Japanese automaker has "consistently demonstrated a commitment to proactively do the right thing for its associates."

Officials with Toyota, Rivian and Volkswagen declined to comment and the other automakers could not immediately be reached.

The UAW effort with the nonunion automakers echoes the approach it took with the Detroit Three, where the union negotiated simultaneously with all three in reaching an agreement after a six-week strike.

The push comes as several foreign automakers have announced significant pay and other compensation improvements in response to the UAW contracts in a move many analysts and industry officials saw as an effort to keep the UAW out of their plants.

U.S. President Joe Biden this month backed the UAW in its quest to unionize other carmakers. "I want this type of contract for all auto workers and I have a feeling the UAW has a plan for that," he said at an event with Fain.

The UAW for decades has unsuccessfully sought to organize auto factories operated by foreign automakers. Efforts to organize Nissan plants in Mississippi and Tennessee failed by wide margins, and two attempts to organize VW's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, failed by a closer margin.

Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, acknowledged the UAW's past failures, but said the environment is more positive now with the strong deals in place with the Detroit Three, a more favorable view of unions by the broader public and the support of the White House.

"This is the moment to try it, but it will be very difficult because the companies have raised wages to make this less likely and they will resist this across the board very strongly," he said. "It's going to be tough, but if there was a moment to seize, it's right now."

The new UAW organizing site - UAW.org/join - echoes the group's criticism of the Detroit Three automakers during its contract push, including noting corporate profits and CEO pay.

The website asks Tesla workers to join, saying CEO "Elon Musk is the richest man in the world, with a net worth of $230 billion. U.S. production has more than doubled since 2020, and Tesla’s sales are booming. The question is, will Tesla workers get their fair share?"

The UAW said one of its strongest campaigns was at Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, assembly complex, where 7,800 workers build the Camry, RAV4 and Lexus ES. Union officials have repeatedly pointed to Toyota as a top target.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in WashingtonEditing by Ben Klayman and Matthew Lewis)