By G. Chambers Williams III, The Tennessean
As the United Auto Workers gears up to try to unionize foreign auto assembly plants in the South, the union has begun training regional organizers to focus on the dealerships of whichever automakers it decides to target.
The union's idea would be to use "informational picketing" aimed at "educating" customers as they enter car dealers' storefronts. Union officials say the picketing wouldn't be as intense as the UAW might use at a strike-bound auto plant, which typically aims to deter people from entering the factory gates.
But UAW officials do concede that union sympathizers, such as truck drivers who are Teamsters members delivering new vehicles to dealerships, might balk at crossing the picket lines.
Dealers worry that any picketing could hurt their businesses, and they say the UAW's campaign should be aimed at manufacturers rather than the independent dealerships.
Although the union has yet to announce its first target among the various "transplant" manufacturing sites in the South (operated by German, Japanese and South Korean automakers), Volks-wagen's new plant in Chattanooga has been mentioned as a prime candidate.
Other possibilities include Hyundai/Kia facilities in Montgomery, Ala., and West Point, Ga.; Nissan plants in Smyrna, Tenn., and Canton, Miss.; Toyota's new assembly operation in Blue Springs, Miss.; a Mercedes-Benz factory near Tuscaloosa, Ala.; and a BMW plant in Greer, S.C.
"As far as organizing of the transplants, I think it's been widely known that's one of the goals of [UAW President] Bob King and this administration, and we are in discussions on organizing a transplant," Joe Ashton, a UAW vice president, said last week during a visit to the General Motors plant in Spring Hill.
"Informational picketing is one of the things we're looking at," Ashton said. "Not actually picketing a dealership, but giving out information about why it would be important for that particular transplant to be union.
"We haven't picked the target yet, but we're very close to doing that. When we pick the target, there is the possibility we will look at the dealerships of that particular target. We've been training organizers for some time now, and we're now training in the regions."
That training has begun at the UAW Local 1853 headquarters in Spring Hill, said Michael Herron, chairman of the local, which represents workers at the GM plant there.
"There have been several training sessions at the union hall," Herron said. "One of the things they talked about is that [the picketing] would be an awareness campaign at the dealerships. It's not intended to disrupt business."
Still, the UAW's efforts "would be misplaced" if aimed at dealerships, said Rocky Hendrickson, owner of Hallmark Volkswagen, which has stores in Madison and Cool Springs.
"It would be intimidating," he said. "No one wants to cross a picket line. In today's society, we see violence with protesters of any kind of thing."
Hendrickson called the possible strategy an attack on small businesses that employ local workers.
"We are franchises; we are not the manufacturer," he said. "The jobs of our people are going to be threatened."