The United Auto Workers union has struggled to find new membership since its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, but it is making inroads in some unlikely areas: one of them appears to be Northwestern Michigan. In recent months it has won organizing votes or inked contracts with three of the largest auto suppliers in the Traverse City area: Tower Automotive Inc., Eagle Picher and a large Lear Corp. plant (formerly United Technologies Automotive).

Known for growing cherries and as a resort area rather than making car parts, Traverse City isn’t a big manufacturing center, yet it does boast a surprising number of light- and heavy production facilities.

Tower Automotive Inc., supplies millions of parts such as steering column brackets, structural members, threaded and tapped components, and shock tower assemblies each month to dozens of global customers from its Traverse City plant, which employs about 350 hourly workers. Ford was its biggest customer, but insiders say business from Toyota Motor Corp.’s assembly plants in the U.S. and Canada is what’s keeping the factory humming right now, although the stamper continues to supply components for Ford products and its new X-type “baby Jag” Jaguar.

After the UAW made numerous organizing drives at Tower in Traverse City, workers finally voted to be represented by the union last summer. However, sources at the plant in Traverse City say management dragged its feet when it came to negotiating an initial contract.

After being threatened by a walkout , Tower management finally inked a contract with the UAW in late June, about a week after management and union representatives agreed on a contract at a Tower plant in Clinton Township, MI, which also was threatening to strike.

In late May, a majority of workers at Eagle Picher in Traverse City voted to join the UAW. Workers voted in favor of union representation by a 183-103 margin in an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

It was the third UAW organizing victory at Eagle Picher auto supplier facilities during the past 10 months. Workers at the company’s plants in Hillsdale, MI, and Blacksburg, VA, also recently voted for UAW representation.

“It looks like most of the bigger supplier plants in Northwestern Michigan are all being organized,” says a UAW member at Tower. “I’ve lived in this region for 15 years, and it used to be, you wouldn’t even mention the UAW.” o