TRAVERSE CITY, MI – United Auto Workers union President Bob King says management’s outdated perceptions about his membership stand in the way of organizing workers at U.S. transplants.

“We’ve got to catch their perception up to reality,” King tells Ward’s on the sidelines of the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars here.

King acknowledges during his remarks to the annual conference that confidential talks with “a majority” of the transplants have begun and reiterates his expectations to organize one of their assembly operations this year. “I’m an optimist,” he admits.

Gaining union representation at one of the Asian or European auto makers’ plants in the U.S., such as Volkswagen’s newly minted Tennessee facility or Hyundai’s booming Alabama operation, would be a coup for both the UAW and perhaps the Detroit Three.

The UAW long has fought unsuccessfully to represent hourly workers at the transplants, tripped up by competitive wage packages, plant locations in states with right-to-work laws and what it says are dubious anti-union tactics by management.

Gaining those workers would swell the union’s stagnant membership rolls and validate King’s vision of labor in the 21st century as a social champion for restoring the U.S. middle class.

Organizing the foreign auto makers would benefit the Detroit Three, by bringing transplant labor costs more in line with – or even above – those of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

Ironically, King says, the foreign companies work well with unions in their home countries. He especially envies Germany, where auto makers and the IG Metal union have created arguably the world’s strongest middle class.

But perceptions are shifting, he adds, as a revitalized Detroit Three gain market share and make quality and productivity improvements with help from a new era of collaboration with the UAW.

“Probably the biggest question in their mind is, ‘Is this for real or is this a passing fancy with the UAW?’” he says.

King says the more the UAW demonstrates its involvement in the success of the Detroit Three and society overall, “the more likely it is we’ll work out ways for (transplant) workers to decide democratically whether they want to join the union.”

King does not think the workers, themselves, are standing in the way of UAW representation. Previous attempts to organize the transplants showed promise early but faded at voting time, because of what he calls smear campaigns that threatened workers’ jobs, pay and benefits.

“All of which is supposed to be illegal, but the anti-union consultancy business in the U.S. is a multi-billion-dollar industry and they are very skilled at skirting the law,” King says.

King also discounts the idea transplant workers see stagnant wages at UAW-represented auto makers and fear the same for themselves if they join.

“What we want workers in the transplant industry to understand is that workers in UAW-represented facilities have a much greater voice, they are treated with more respect (and) they’ve got more protection and security,” he says.

“At the UAW, we’re showing, and the companies have come to understand, that getting the involvement of our membership is a smart business decision.”

King tells journalists 2011 contract talk with the Detroit Three are progressing “very well.” He stops short of discussing particulars, but does reiterate fighting for a higher compensation level for entry-level employees at some plants earning as little as $14 an hour.

“That’s barely middle class,” he says.

But King also says the UAW will negotiate with an auto maker’s long-term viability in mind, noting compensation hikes could come in the form of alternative approaches such as profit sharing and gain sharing.

The latter would involve incentives to workers for items such as better attendance, higher productivity and greater quality.

“We’ve got to find creative ways to increase the income without creating a cost disadvantage for the vehicles we sell,” King says.

jamend@wardsauto.com