DETROIT - In a bid to regain thousands of jobs lost to nonunion suppliers, the United Auto Workers has targeted two large suppliers for organizing drives: Johnson Controls Inc. and Dana Corp. The union confirmed last week that it plans to seek elections at a minimum of three JCI Automotive Systems Group facilities and four Dana Corp. plants.
Both companies operate some unionized plants, but many employees remain nonunion.
``This is a top priority,'' said Carolyn Forrest, vice president of the UAW's supplier department. ``At Dana, we've been moving slowly, holding meetings and contacting people. Now we are going to speed things up. Johnson Controls also is on the horizon. Sometime in the future, we'll mount a nationwide effort against them.''
The UAW has two prominent targets for the first phase of its nationwide drive. Dana had $4.2 billion in North American original equipment manufacturer auto sales last year, according to Automotive News, a sister publication to Plastics News; JCI had $3.3 billion. Dana has more than 30,000 employees in North Amer-ica; Johnson Controls has about 18,000.
They are among the Top 10 automotive OEM suppliers in North America. Dana has about 75 U.S. automotive plants; about half have unions. Most of Johnson Controls' 30 U.S. auto plants are nonunion.
To organize a plant, the union first must get a majority of hourly workers to sign union cards, then win a majority of votes in an election.
The UAW is organizing plants owned by Johnson Controls in Plymouth, Mich., and Oberlin and Strongsville, Ohio. These plants make seats for vans and sport utilities built by Ford Motor Co.
Last year, Ford nearly suffered a retaliatory strike by UAW Local 425 when the automaker stopped making seats for the Econoline van and gave the contract to Johnson Controls.
Local union leaders were outraged that Oberlin - a nonunion shop - was to make the seats. Now that contract talks with the Big Three automakers are looming, the UAW wants to freeze additional outsourcing to nonunion suppliers.
At such a delicate time, it would appear prudent for Johnson Controls to allow the union to represent those plants. Ford could then shift work to its supplier without incurring the UAW's wrath.
In fact, employees at Johnson Controls' Plymouth plant report that the company - usually a tough opponent of UAW organizers - is not resisting the union's sign-up campaign.
This summer, Plymouth will start making seats for the new Ford Expedition, a full-sized sport-utility to be built at Ford's Michigan Truck plant. Plant employees say Johnson Controls does not want to antagonize the UAW on the eve of its Big 3 contract negotiations.
But Ford denies having any role in the UAW campaign. ``We don't dictate how suppliers handle their relationship with their employees,'' said Ford spokes-man Jon Harmon.
A spokesman for Johnson Controls declined to comment.
The union plans to distribute sign-up cards at Dana plants in Gastonia, N.C.; Gordonsville, Tenn.; Morganton, N.C.; and Cape Girardeau, Mo. The plants make axles, drive shafts and filters.
Earlier this spring, Dana negotiated a new labor contract with the UAW, which represents a number of other Dana plants. Dana also has told the UAW it will stay neutral during the organizing drives. However, company spokes-man Gary Corrigan said Dana would prefer to keep the four targeted plants nonunion.
``We believe that we do not need a third party to manage our business,'' Corrigan said. ``The workers will have to make their own decision.''
The UAW's organizing drives at Johnson Controls and Dana are part of a larger effort to restore its former clout among suppliers. The UAW now represents about 100,000 employees of automotive suppliers, down sharply from 400,000 several decades ago, Forrest said.
Last year, new UAW President Stephen Yokich announced he intended to reverse that trend.
Forrest insists this effort is more serious, better organized, and directed from a higher level than previous attempts to sign suppliers.
The union plans to set up organizing centers in regions with a heavy concentration of nonunion suppliers. Although the union has not yet determined the number and location of these centers, at least two are likely to be placed in southern areas like Texas and Tennessee.
Traditionally, the South has been a difficult region for the UAW to organize suppliers, Forrest acknowledged.
``These are tough states, and we know that going in. But that's where the suppliers are,'' she said.
Although the UAW has ambitious plans, its organizers have suffered several reverses. Recently, the union called off an organizing drive aimed at Donnelly Corp., a mirror manufacturer based in Holland, Mich.
Forrest said she does not want to fumble efforts to organize Dana and Johnson Controls by adding other targets too quickly. ``I don't want to have so many things going that we spread ourselves thin.''