We talk a lot about brands here at TTAC. For example, Porsche comes in for a bit of criticism for moving away from their image as a maker of purist sports cars. We’ve discussed how brands can be burnished and also be diminished. Do today’s Cadillacs live up to “the standard of the world” and is the Lincoln Motor Company a dead brand walking? Back when GM was busy melting down financially and the future of brands like Pontiac were uncertain, I even checked with a businessman who specialized in bringing back old brands, to see how he would go about reviving GM’s distressed brands. Even a badly damaged brand can be revived. Which brings me to today’s topic, is the UAW’s brand damaged and if so, how can it be fixed?
I ask that not just because the autoworkers’ labor union lost an important certification vote at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, TN assembly plant. You can see negative attitudes towards the UAW by consumers as well, people insisting one reason why they won’t buy a car from the three domestic American car companies is because they question the quality of cars built in UAW shops. Sure, some of the negativity comes from general anti-union attitudes, but I think the UAW would be well served to pay attention to the possibility that their brand is indeed considered damaged by both consumers and potential UAW members, and to consider what the union can do to restore some luster to its brand. Denying that the UAW brand is damaged, or saying that it’s all the fault of anti-union activity is akin to a line worker at GM’s Detroit Hamtramck Assembly Plant whistling Solidarity Forever as he strolls past the folks resting forever at Beth Olem.
One of the more common comments following the UAW’s failing to win the vote at VW was that workers there weren’t rejecting the idea of a union so much as they were rejecting a specific union, the UAW. Certainly a factor in the vote was the involvement of outside groups, like the one headed by Grover Norquist, that bought billboard space in Chattanooga targeting VW employees. Those billboards didn’t really address ideological issues surrounding the labor movement, they attacked the UAW. Those billboards wouldn’t have gotten traction with VW employees if the UAW’s image with those workers was pristine.
My own position on the UAW is that while I have my criticisms, a measurable percentage of the things that I see attacking the UAW are unfair. For example, calling the union “communist” is just silly in light of the history of Walter Reuther fighting hard to keep communist influence out of his union. I’m a small L libertarian and I have my differences with the labor movement but I think that the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of association and contract rights, provides a sound basis for saying that Americans have the right to form labor unions and try to negotiate collectively, at least in the private sector. This, however, is not about my political or ideological stances, it’s about consumers and workers looking at the union label and saying, “no, thanks”.
Part of the UAW’s brand image problem is tied to “Detroit”, the city and the industry. At the same time that “Detroit” evokes a symphony of images and feelings, many of which are not exactly warm and fuzzy, there are at least a couple of examples of Detroit brands being turned around. While it still has a long row to hoe, Cadillac today is a much more respected brand than it was in the late 1990s, and under Alan Mulally’s leadership Ford has gained a great deal of credibility with consumers and industry observers alike. If those companies’ brands can go from not even being on consumers’ short lists to now being found on their driveways, there’s no reason why the UAW can’t improve its image.
So if you were Dennis Williams, who is slated to replace Bob King as president of the UAW, what would you do to improve the UAW’s brand?
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS