A Nissan Xterra is inspected at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., in 2006.… (Mark Humphrey, Associated…)
Reporting from Montgomery, Ala. — Deric Golden has what he calls his dream job, fixing small flaws on the sedans being churned out at the Hyundai factory here.
So when two organizers from the United Auto Workers knocked on his apartment door one day, hoping to get him to sign a union card, he quickly sent them packing.
"I told them I didn't work at the plant," said Golden, 29. "I just wasn't interested."
It's the same story in town after town along the southern tier of Auto Alley, a corridor that runs north-south along interstates 75 and 65 from Lexington, Ky., to Montgomery.
Foreign automakers — including Honda, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen — are placing their U.S. factories in this region because of generous state and local incentives and a workforce famously resistant to unions.
Still, this is the region that Bob King, president of the UAW, calls a key battleground that could alter the future of the industry's labor movement. And it's workers like Golden whom the union must win over.
"It is critically important for our membership to organize those facilities to keep the companies where we already represent workers competitive," King said. "We need to make sure that companies compete on the basis of engineering, design, quality and innovation — not on who can pay their workers the least."
The Southern battle is shaping up at a time when the labor movement is facing new assaults from anti-labor governors and legislatures in traditionally friendly environs such as Wisconsin and the industrial Midwest. King is hoping his pitch — that the union is the defender of middle-class jobs and upward mobility — will resonate with the rank and file.
"We keep putting more taxes and lower wages on the people who are working in this nation and keep giving tax breaks to the wealthy," he said. "And that will destroy our democracy."
The union's membership has been shrinking across the country, hurt by the recession, bankruptcies by General Motors and Chrysler and an industrywide restructuring that has closed dozens of factories with UAW contracts.
Since 2007, the number of auto industry workers belonging to the union has plunged 46% to just 185,522 from more than 345,407.
Plants in the South are churning out more of the nation's supply of new vehicles. They now account for about half of all vehicle manufacturing in the U.S., yet none of the factories operated by the foreign automakers in the region has union workers.
The Detroit-based UAW could see its role in setting wages and benefits for the industry severely diminish unless it gains members at those plants, King said.
Wages vary by company and geographic region, making exact comparisons difficult. Average labor costs — wages and benefits — for the unionized Detroit automakers and nonunion Toyota's U.S. plants are about the same at $55 an hour, according to the Center for Automotive Research. But the rest pay less; nonunion Honda pays about $50 an hour. Nissan, Hyundai and Kia are at about $45.
Since the 1950s, the UAW has "played a central role in producing a growing and vibrant American middle class," said Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor and labor expert. The wages and benefits it exacted from the Detroit automakers in the second half of the 20th century set a pattern for manufacturing wages nationwide, he said.
Though much smaller now, the union remains a force — and King has moved to expand its reach by courting new political constituencies such as environmentalists and human-rights activists as well as new industries.
But the UAW is having trouble making its case to workers who have an intense loyalty to the automakers who brought high-paying blue-collar employment to these small towns and cities starved for jobs.
"I don't want to give any more pieces of the pie to anyone else. I need it for myself," said Kevin Carroll of La Grange, Ga., who was unemployed when hired by Kia Motors Manufacturing last year.
The West Point, Ga., Kia plant, which opened in 2009, has had more than 100,000 applications for just 2,100 positions.
Charles Miller of Powder Springs, Ga., had worked for an industrial parts manufacturer that for the 18 months before he joined Kia in August had put its workers on a one-week furlough every month. He said the factory job he landed painting Kia Sorrento SUVs had better pay and benefits even without the furloughs, greatly improving his finances.
"We have good communication with management here. Why would you need a union?" he asked. "The only time a union shows up is to collect dues or at election time."
Sentiments like these emphasize the magnitude of the challenge the UAW faces.