Courting foreign automakers to 'build American'

If US car shoppers will not "buy American," overseas automakers can at least build American. That is the logic on which the United Automobile Workers union (UAW), state development offices, and official Washington base their stepped-up courting -- some say pressuring -- of foreign manufacturers to assemble more of their cars on US shores. Supporters see potential strong gains for this country in thousands of new skilled jobs for laid-off auto workers, added tax revenue, and increased demand for US raw materials.

Even US car manufacturers support the effort -- if less enthusiastically.The Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, which bases its membership only on volume, recently took in Volkswagen of America as its newest member. Some US manufacturers have direct ties with foreign firms for assembling and distributing imports. Most say the competition exists anyway and that plant location is not that critical a factor in it.

"If imports are to be sold in the US, it's fine for American workers to have the opportunity to build them and for the economy to get this boost," says General Motors spokesman Phil Workman. "We've got to compete . . . and we'll take this thing head on."

Many of the states are actively wooing overseas automakers with tax-incentive packages and by making a strong pitch for labor availability in light of the current new car sales slump. Gov. William Milliken (R) of Michigan, the nation's automobile-manufacturing center, is currently in Japan on a trade mission. He is talking with, among others, Toyota executives and officials of auto parts firms in hopes of persuading them that Michigan's superior technology and abundant skilled labor supply are ample reason to choose it as a site for any new production facilities.

So far, in the eyes of "build american" backers, Volkswagen of America stands as the one example worth emulating. In addition to one working assembly plant in Pennsylvania and two supply plants elsewhere in the US, the West German Manufacturer soon will acquire an Army missile factory outside Detroit to launch a second car assembly operation.

Also scheduled to begin production soon is a Mercedes truck plant in Virginia and a Honda car assembly operation in Ohio. Japan's Nissan Motors (Datsun) will establish a plant to product light pickup trucks in the Great Lakes or Southeastern states. But its choice of site will not be announced for several months, and, so far, according to a Datsun spokesman, the company is "resisting" pressure to duplicate that move with passenger cars.

None of this is fast or widespread enough to satisfy the UAW, which has singled out the Japanese for its most intensive pressuring. Japanese automakers sell more cars in the United States than in their own country, accounting for three-fourths of all imported car sales here.

"Our feeling is that the Japanese, with minor exceptions, are really dragging their feet and have no intention of building here," says UAW spokesman Jerry Dale. "They only respond to pressure, and we're just about convinced that they're studying it [the issue] to death."

Few are pressing for quotas or higher tariffs on Japanese imports here, but the UAW has been campaigning hard for voluntary restraints.

"The Japanese have virtually ignored the request," insists Mr. Dale. "They've really taken advantage of the free market here."

Accordingly, the UAW has a threat in the wings that officials say they hope they will not have to use. If the Japanese response doest not improve, they say , they will push for "local content" legislation to require a substantial percentage of imported cars widely sold here to be produced and assembled in this country.

"The ideal situation is no legislation," explains Howard Paster of the UAW's Washington office. "But we've about given up trying to be Mr. Nice Guy."

Congress is sympathetic to the economic problems of laid-off autoworkers but is considered unlikely to back such protectionist legislation as a solution.

Japan's polite resistance to all the prodding is based, in part, on concern that American manufacturers will soon channel their full production efforts into small cars and pull back a large share of the import market just as Japanese plants here would be gearing up for production.

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