Looking back on Honda's brush with the UAW

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — A few months after Honda started building motorcycles at its newly minted $ 35 million plant in Marysville, Ohio, in September 1979, the UAW set up shop nearby to begin its organizing effort.

But the union’s yearslong quest would come up short against the patience of Shige Yoshida, now retired COO of Honda of America Manufacturing, who effectively gauged the will of his workers and brushed off pressure from Japan brass to recognize the union.

“I knew something of unions,” Yoshida, 86, recalled during an April speech at a Columbus Rotary event. “Honda has a company union in Japan. The relationship between management and workers is different. Many union leaders are promoted into management, and there are few major disputes.”

Yoshida: Thought highly of Ohioans

But in America, he said, “UAW challenged us from the beginning.”

It was Yoshida’s quest for more cooperative relationships that led him, and Honda, to Ohio some four decades ago.

In 1975, he was in his early 40s, a vice president at Honda Trading in California tasked with exploring the feasibility of motor vehicle production in the U.S.

Yoshida said he scouted an array of sites. California made a push, as did Nevada. But Yoshida settled on Ohio because he liked the people there.

During his travels, Yoshida ate at many family restaurants to get a sense of the populace. He said Ohioans impressed him.

In 1977, Honda settled on a plot of land near the Transportation Research Center, a private automotive proving ground in East Liberty, on the outskirts of Columbus. Yoshida, who had visited the center with other Honda execs before the decision, spoke with employees, who he said exuded pride and diligence.

Ohio Gov. James Rhodes said he would give the land to Honda, but the automaker declined. Honda said it wanted to buy the plot at a reasonable price.

Early American-built Honda Accords, top and above, faced scrutiny over whether their quality would be lower than that of those manufactured in Japan.

So Honda signed an inducement agreement with Ohio on Oct. 11, 1977. The state would provide $ 2.5 million to assist in site development, while Honda paid for the site and other costs, Yoshida recalled. Honda broke ground for the Marysville motorcycle plant on April 3, 1978. The first motorcycle rolled off the line on Sept. 10, 1979.

“Reporters were surprised at the low amount of state assistance,” Yoshida said. “A few years earlier, Volkswagen had encouraged a bidding war between Pennsylvania and Ohio. That was not our way.”

Motorcycle dealers were concerned early on about the view that American-built Hondas would be of lesser quality. They wanted the motorcycles built in Japan. But those fears were tempered when 600 dealers came to Marysville to see the production firsthand.

Just a few months after motorcycle assembly launched, Honda announced that it would invest $ 250 million to build an automobile plant next to the motorcycle operation. The first American-built Accords began making their way down the assembly line on Nov. 1, 1982, only to face the same scrutiny around American-built quality as the motorcycles had before.

Honda began building motorcycles in Ohio in 1979, three years before auto production started.

“It’s easy to look at this now as an obvious decision” to build the Accord in the U.S., said Tom Shoupe, COO of Honda of America Manufacturing, in written remarks at a separate Columbus Rotary event in April. “But back in the early 1980s, you couldn’t say conventional wisdom led to our decision to build the Accord in Ohio.”

The UAW wanted in on this fast-growing manufacturing hub.

At one point, Yoshida said, the union threatened a boycott of its products if Honda continued to require that only Honda hats could be worn at work. Honda relented but made clear that no competitors’ hats could be worn.

Honda leaders in Japan, who were antsy about the union, urged Yoshida to begin talks. Yoshida said he had a series of meetings throughout the early 1980s with the UAW until the breaking point in 1985.

The union claimed in an October 1985 letter to Yoshida that a majority of its workers in an appropriate bargaining unit had designated the UAW “as their exclusive representative for the purpose of collective bargaining.” Before responding, Yoshida said, he polled his associates and found that by a 3-1 ratio, the workers opposed recognition and preferred a secret ballot vote.

Yoshida was summoned to Japan around this time, where leadership asked him why the Marysville operation hadn’t yet recognized the UAW. Yoshida told them what he had learned. Some executives were annoyed, but the meeting ended without any change in direction on the UAW.

Then in December 1985, just 10 days before the UAW election, the union delayed the vote by filing unfair-labor-practice charges, which were thrown out. The election was rescheduled, but the UAW later withdrew its request. No election was ever held.

By 1987, Honda’s U.S. factories had 5,000 workers spanning three plants that built motorcycles, cars and engines. Yoshida said Honda set a goal for its American presence to be a self-reliant operation.

Nowadays, Honda is lauded for the flexibility in its assembly lines that allows it to easily adjust production to demand and limit the use of sales incentives. The UAW, meanwhile, has struggled to gain a foothold outside the domestic brands, though its membership is growing again after years of decline.

“If Honda had failed in America as Volkswagen did, companies headquartered outside the U.S. probably would have concluded that operating in America with American workers would be impossible,” said Paul Ingrassia, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has authored several books on the auto industry, as he introduced Yoshida before his speech.

“In that case, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, Denso and a host of other companies wouldn’t be manufacturing in America today.”

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