United Auto Workers President Douglas Fraser said today that he expects Japanese automakers to limit the number of imports they ship here voluntarily but he added that he has no firm commitments and said that even if some Japanese automakers curtail exports somewhat, he still plans to seek legislation restricting them.
Fraser briefed reporters on his recent trip to Tokyo "to sensitize" the Japanese government and its automakers to the unemployment of U.S. auto workers and the increasing sentiment towards protectionism here.
In the immediate future, "I don't think anything will be done (by the Japanese) except self-restraint," Fraser said.
During his visit to plead the case of 200,000 laid-off U.S. auto workers, Fraser said Japan's prime minister told him that the Japanese government recognized that the auto issue was causing friction between the two countries. "I think they will be taking steps to eliminate that friction," Fraser added.
"We got some encouragement while we were over there, "Fraser said. "But we've been down this read before," meaning receiving hope but nothing else from the Japanese. "While I hope the promising signs come to fruition, I think we'll still be talking about legislation" to restrict imports, he said.
"Their promises are not enough," Fraser continued. "We want firm, solid commitments, and that's the only thing that will satisfy us."
Fraser said he thinks the Japanese already have cut back on some exports of cars to the U.S., partly because they are near or at capacity in automobile production. For example, representatives of Nissan, makers of the Datsun cars, told Fraser that their imports might go up slightly during the first half of the year and then drop, partly because they are near production capacity, he said.
Fraser spent four days talking with Japanese industry leaders and government representatives trying to convince them to open Japanese auto manufacturing plants in the United States and limit their exports of small, gas-efficient cars here or face import barriers.
The UAW often espoused a "free trade" sentiment, but now is emphasizing "fair trade," Fraser said. The union leader said that Japanese automakers are taking advantage of the U.S. auto industry while its production plants are trying to retool for smaller, more-gas-efficient cars which are expected to debut within the next couple of years.
Fraser said he received no commitment from the Japanese automakers to build plants here and thus hire U.S. workers as Volkswagen has done and Honda says it plans to do. Fraser said he told the Japanese that if they located plants here they could establish a healthy relationship with the UAW.
He added, however, that he encouraged Mitsubishi -- Japan's giant industrial and financial complex which manufacturers popular compact cars here sold by Chrysler Corp. -- to engage in joint ventures with the struggling automaker rather than open facilities here. Mitsubishi cars sold by Chrysler include Dodge Colt and Plymouth Champ subcompacts.
Both Toyota and Nissan have stated clearly that they doubt the economic feasibility of a U.S. plant, but they are being pressured by the government to build plants anyway to reduce frictions between the two countries. The Japanese government has said it believes that protectionist moves will grow quickly in an American election year and that the result may be a drastic rollback in the quantity of car exports.
Although Fraser said that he received no firm commitments from the Japanese on anything, he added that his trip was "successful in sensitizing the government and auto industry to the problems of auto workers and unemployment."
Fraser said he informed the Japanese that Congress plans to hold hearings next month on the import car issue. The union leader said he doesn't favor permanent import quotas but "an orderly market agreement for the next two and a half years" until American automakers can make the transition from large-to small-car production.