UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said Wednesday that workers at Toyota and other foreign-owned auto plants have shown new interest in joining his union since learning of Toyota Motor Corp.'s plans to hold down its labor costs.

In an internal document the Free Press obtained exclusively last month, a Toyota North American manufacturing executive said the Japanese automaker should try to align hourly wages more closely with prevailing manufacturing pay in the state where each plant is located, "and not tie ourselves so closely to the U.S. auto industry, or other competitors."

"We had already started getting calls before that became public, so we knew that was a pretty interesting issue," Gettelfinger told reporters as the UAW closed a two-day convention in Detroit on bargaining issues.

Gettelfinger declined to talk about UAW efforts to organize foreign-owned plants, but he said the UAW keeps close tabs on worker sentiments at those factories. He cited the internal Toyota document as a recent event leading to heightened concerns among those workers.

"There is a lot of interest," Gettelfinger said. "Now, is there enough interest? I won't say that there is enough interest to hold an election. I'll just say that there has been some events that have occurred that have generated a lot more interest than what we were seeing initially."

Toyota, Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. have steadily expanded their manufacturing base in the United States without having their workforces become part of the UAW. Toyota's only UAW plant is a joint venture in California with General Motors Corp.

Many of the foreign-owned plants are in the South, where the percentage of unionized workers is low. Workers at those plants often are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their job, Gettelfinger said.

The Free Press reported this spring that some Toyota workers earned more last year than their UAW counterparts when profit-sharing bonuses are included.

But UAW surveys show those workers recognize that unions have helped them, Gettelfinger said.

"The workers realize that the wage and benefit level they've got is a result of what the UAW has done at the Big Three facilities," Gettelfinger said.

Gettelfinger's comments came shortly after the close of the UAW bargaining convention, held every four years to set basic bargaining principles for the union.

The 103-page resolution on bargaining issues was approved by 1,500 delegates from 850 locals. The resolution calls for the UAW to stick to its agenda of demanding fair pay, guaranteed pensions and universal health care.

Delegates at the convention recognized that the UAW faces a difficult environment, particularly in its core base of autoworkers. The UAW is scheduled to begin contract negotiations in July with GM, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group.

GM and Ford have been through massive restructuring programs that have led to a loss of more than 70,000 hourly jobs in the last year and a half. Chrysler recently launched its own restructuring plan and could be sold by DaimlerChrysler.

Despite the difficulties, the UAW needs to maintain a hard line on wages and benefits, said Sherri Hinton, a delegate from a Fairfield Manufacturing plant in Lafayette, Ind.

"You have to stand together to get anyplace," Hinton said. "You can't go backward. You have to keep taking steps forward."

A small group of dissident workers expressed dissatisfaction with the resolution but primarily because they wanted the UAW to take a harder stance.

Mike Parker, a delegate from Chrysler's Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, said the companies are chipping away at worker rights through the local contracts. Several locals at Chrysler plants have agreed to new work rules for fear of losing future products to another plant, he said.

The UAW also needs to take a vigilant role in making sure that Chrysler Group workers are protected as the unit is shopped around, Parker said.

"The companies will take away everything they can. The only thing that will stop them from taking away everything is the ability of the union to fight back."

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