The UAW: Cut and Run?
I wouldn’t join any union that would have me as a member. And yet the United Autoworker’s Union (UAW) wants me. Yep, UAW Local 1981 represents freelance writers. The pen-pushing Local is part of a growing trend within the UAW. As more and more of their members accept buyouts and early retirements, as the UAW [secretly] realizes that they’ve milked their Detroit cash cow to the point of death, the union is pulling a Studebaker. They’re diversifying out of their core business before their core business goes tango uniform.
The UAW was formed in 1935. In 1969, membership peaked at roughly 1.5m members. By 2002, 639k industry workers were paying UAW dues. By 2005, the number sank to 557K members. After the next round of “attrition plans” from GM, Ford, and Delphi, there’ll be fewer than a half million active UAW members left. The exodus occurs against a backdrop of a general decline in the “market” for union representation. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, national union membership has dropped from 20.1% of the U.S. labor force in 1983, to 12.5% in 2005.
What’s worse, some union members are beginning to question the UAW’s efficacy. Speaking to The Detroit Free Press, one Ford employee opting for early retirement noted "it would be belaboring the obvious to say that the UAW's nuclear option of a strike is not as evident as it used to be." If members believe the UAW has “gone soft,” labor leaders negotiating next year’s contract will be between a rock (breakaway dissent, wildcat strikes and a potential fall from power) and a hard place (clinging to contracts that kill the golden goose). Bet on Plan B.
Like many other experts, labor law expert Jim Hendricks doesn’t see it that way. "I don't think they can survive the way they used to. Manufacturers and employers feared this union because of their sheer size and strength." Hendricks thinks the UAW should merge with other unions facing the same problems. While UAW leadership hasn't ruled out the possibility, they seem more interested in conquering new territory on their own.
In the short term, the UAW faces the same problem as The Big Two Point Five: they’ll soon have more retirees than active employees. Like any clued-in capitalist, the UAW’s management knows they have to grow to keep the cash flowing. Logically enough, the UAW has spread their recruitment efforts throughout the rest of the automotive industry, including auto parts and heavy truck manufacturers and auto dealerships (mechanics and back office staff).
At the same time, the UAW is scrambling to organize any group that’s not already represented by some other labor union (and edging into some areas which already are). So far they’ve established a presence in household appliances, brewing, lawn/garden equipment, tools and hardware, firearms, boats, modular housing, toys, musical instruments, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food processing, public radio stations, casinos, aerospace and defense.
The UAW has also cast their net over a wide range of professions: draftsmen, industrial designers, engineers, computer specialists, health care professionals, journalists and writers, curators and librarians, graduate teaching assistants and staff lawyers.
Most promisingly of all– given the taxpayer’s seemingly limitless purse and any union’s ability to use political muscle to wrest financial concessions– the UAW is organizing state and local government employees, such as social service workers. Their latest conquest: Michigan’s home-based child care providers. So far, the UAW reports it’s organized about some 40k care providers.
And yet the UAW claims they’re being selective about potential members. UAW Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Bunn stated, "We are not interested in representing workers where we don't feel we can act as a powerful voice for them." Translation? Unless you’re in an industry where the UAW has a chance of establishing a stronghold or getting a lot of (dues-paying) members, fuhgeddaboudit!
With the UAW dividing its attention amongst these diverse areas, how can they successfully address the labor issues of any of their smaller constituent groups? Can an organization where the leadership has focused on workers in one single industry for the past 70 years effectively advocate for other totally unrelated industries?
The needs and concerns of nurses and lawyers aren’t necessarily the same as those of assembly line workers, and you can’t take the same actions against government entities that you can against giant corporations. Is the UAW equipped to handle this diversity, or are they bloating their portfolio beyond any rational hope of quality, GM-style?
If successful, the UAW’s expansion is a major threat to domestic automakers. It will strengthen the only power that any negotiator ever possesses: the power to walk away. In fact, the more industries with UAW representation, the more the union needs to look tough. Autoworkers, indeed the entire domestic automobile industry, could be sacrificed on the altar of the union’s long term survival strategy.
More by Frank Williams
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