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Unions Battle Over Honda Workers

May 11, 1999

MARYSVILLE, Ohio (AP) _ After nearly 20 years with no union, workers at Honda’s U.S. auto plants now have two unions in a dispute over who should represent them.

If the workers approve a union, it would be the first at any solely Japanese-owned auto plant in the United States. There are unions in plants that are joint ventures of Japanese and U.S. companies or that make models for both.

Honda boasts of a team atmosphere at its plants, where all employees _ from management to people on the assembly line _ are known as associates.

And some workers at the plants are strongly anti-union, and a couple hundred loyal employees demonstrated against a union last week in the streets of this central Ohio city of 10,000 people, about 30 miles northwest of Columbus.

``There’s a time and a place for everything. I just don’t think the time is now,″ said Michael Ferguson, a 27-year-old who makes brakes at plant in Anna. ``It would be a different story if people were upset on a daily basis about the same thing and nothing was being done. But that’s not the case.″

Pro-union workers say they’re upset over working conditions and retirement plans. They also allege Honda gives temporary workers _ who make around half the $20-per-hour permanent associates’ average _ day shifts preferred by permanent workers. Honda denies the allegation.

The United Auto Workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board in 1985 and 1989, but never reached the point where workers voted on whether to join a union.

Teamsters officials say frustrated Honda workers came to them after getting nowhere with the United Auto Workers. But the UAW is disputing whether the Teamsters belong in an auto plant, and filed a complaint April 27 with the AFL-CIO seeking exclusive rights to organize the Honda plants in Ohio.

Teamsters Local 413 in Columbus says it has about 3,000 signatures from Honda workers, more than the 30 percent needed for the NLRB to approve a vote. The local says about 8,000 of the 13,200 employees in the state would be represented.

``We decided we were going to bring attention to these people,″ said Zeke Totten, an organizer with Local 413. ``We didn’t estimate we’d get more than 1,000 cards, maybe 2,000.″

Both the UAW and the Teamsters are members of the AFL-CIO, and the labor federation will try to resolve the dispute over representation with mediation or arbitration, if necessary, spokeswoman Lane Windham said.

The UAW has refused to comment on the union turf dispute, and Honda is not taking any position on it.

Honda began producing motorcycles in Marysville in 1979 and over the years added two auto plants and an engine plant in Ohio.

Honda announced last week that it would build its third U.S. auto production plant in eastern Alabama.

Last month, Honda sent out a letter advising workers to ``think twice before signing″ a union authorization card. Spokesman Roger Lambert said employees were asking questions about the Teamsters’ push.

``We respect everyone’s right to say how they feel. It’s one of the things we encourage here,″ Lambert said. ``We haven’t changed and we won’t.″

Jerry Sullivan, a 33-year-old motorcycle welder at the plant in Marysville, says accidents at work have led to surgeries on his ankle, wrist and forearm.

He said he that when he started with Honda 15 years ago as an assembly-line worker just out of high school, he was happy to have a full-time job at a growing plant and saw no need for a union then.

Now, he’s among the workers talking to the Teamsters.

``When you’re an 18-year-old kid it seems easy. You’re not thinking about making it until you’re 65,″ he said.

Gene Linkous, a 13-year Honda veteran who was among those pushing for UAW representation in the 1980s, said Sullivan’s sentiments are typical.

``A lot of the young people (who didn’t favor a union before) are now old people. The work force has now been beat in the ground,″ said Linkous, who works at the Marysville auto plant.

Honda’s spokesman, Lambert, said the company’s plants are among the safest in the auto industry.

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