Crunch Time for the United Auto Workers (UAW)

Frank Williams
by Frank Williams
crunch time for the united auto workers uaw

By the end of the year, America’s automotive landscape will have changed dramatically. Chrysler Group will have new owners with new ideas (including, perhaps, dissection). Ford may or may not be in Chapter 11. General Motors’ fate is equally unclear. One big gas price spike and it’s all over bar the filing. And then there’s the United Auto Workers (UAW). This is the year the UAW renegotiates its contracts with The Big 2.5. If the union digs in its proverbial heels to maintain the status quo, Detroit’s doom will be delayed, but not prevented. As will their own.

The decisions made this week at Detroit’s Cobo Center will answer that question. The UAW’s quadrennial convention on collective bargaining opens today. About 1500 delegates representing over 800 locals from around the country will convene to discuss a number of issues facing the moribund union. They’ll have two days to establish their stand on issues ranging from contract concessions for healthcare and pensions, to what to do about their dwindling membership. They have two days to decide the future of the American automobile industry.

It won’t be easy. Just as GM is trying to extricate itself from rebate hell, the UAW must try to find a way NOT to give The Big 2.5 large concessions on healthcare, wages and pensions. Although the union’s “historic health care giveback” involved a $2b pay-off, common wisdom says the union is ready, willing and able to help Detroit roll-back their crippling labor costs. We’re going to find out exactly how far the union is willing to go to give aid and comfort to their employers.

That depends entirely on which faction within the UAW is sitting at the table. Although labor unions tout solidarity and the value of a united front, there’s a genuine power struggle going on behind the scenes.

On one side, some union bosses are happily extolling cooperation; they’d like the press, their members and the rest of the car industry to think the UAW is management’s best friend. Jim Graham, president of UAW Local 1112 stated ‘‘Management is not the enemy. They’re trying to do the same thing we are: save plants. The enemy is the Asian market.’’

Yet Graham also admits the UAW wants to get in bed with “the enemy.” He notes the UAW is trying to organize workers in the transplants’ factories. Oblivious to the fact the workers in the non-union Georgetown Toyota plant made more last year on average than UAW workers did in Detroit, he states ‘‘In order to get a decent wage, people have to be organized.’’

While the UAW’s making nice with management and trying to move into enemy territory, they seem to have forgotten that their past demands got them where they– and their employers– are today. The bountiful benefits they demanded (and received) when times were good are the excess baggage dragging down Detroit, now that times are tough. When the concession demands begin, we’ll see how long this new friendship lasts.

This brings us to the other end of the spectrum: hardcore factions within the UAW who want nothing less than a return to yesteryear. Soldiers of Solidarity, comprised mostly of Delphi and GM employees, will picket their own union’s meeting this week. They want the union to take a hard-line stance against wage cuts, pension changes and healthcare concessions.

Believe it or not, the Soldiers don’t believe The Big 2.5 are in dire straits. And they continue to see the company through the prism of class war; why should the fat cats be allowed to take food off their table? Strange but true: there are plenty of union members who’d prefer their employer’s death before personal “dishonor.”

So where does UAW President Ron Gettelfinger stand? On the fence.

"There is a great deal of uncertainty in the auto industry right now, which causes a great deal of concern among our members and their families. We're doing our best to address those concerns – but it doesn't do anybody much good to try to predict the outcome of a bargaining process that hasn't even started yet."

No matter. Gettelfinger knows that it’s make or break time for the UAW, without any clear path to “winning.” If the “modernizers” hold sway and the UAW makes company-saving concessions to save its own skin, the union’s power over its members will diminish. As Sean McAlinden from the Center for Automotive Research said, “What’s at risk here are the core values of the union.”

On the other hand, as Dave Cole from the Center for Automotive Research stated, "The existing situation is not survivable. The choice is, are you going to do something different or are you going to die with the domestic industry."

Whatever happens in the next two days, either way, Detroit will never be the same again.

Join the conversation
2 of 82 comments
  • Jdv Jdv on Mar 29, 2007

    I agree, the post by mike_i_n_mich had great insight. Guest columnist perhaps?

  • JimT JimT on Dec 12, 2008

    Unions, they are the cause of all evil in this country. $75 and hour plus benifits to do what? I hope the government doesn't give a dime to these companies and I hope we break every union in the country and start being sensible about how we do work and how we are compansated. Unions are KILLING our country!

  • Dusterdude @El scotto , I'm aware of the history, I have been in the "working world" for close to 40 years with many of them being in automotive. We have to look at situation in the "big picture". Did UAW make concessions in past ? - yes. Do they deserve an increase now ? -yes . Is their pay increase reasonable given their current compensation package ? Not at all ! By the way - are the automotive CEO's overpaid - definitely! (That is the case in many industries, and a separate topic). As the auto industry slowly but surely moves to EV's , the "big 3" will need to be producing top quality competitive vehicles or they will not survive.
  • Art_Vandelay “We skipped it because we didn’t think anyone would want to steal these things”-Hyundai
  • El scotto Huge lumbering SUV? Check. Unknown name soon to be made popular by Tiktok ilk? Check. Scads of these showing up in school drop-off lines? Check. The only real over/under is if these will have as much cachet as Land Rovers themselves? A bespoken item had to be new at one time. Bonus "accepted by the right kind of people" points if EBFlex or Tassos disapproves.
  • El scotto No, "brothers and sisters" are the core strength of the union. So you'll take less money and less benefits because "my company really needs helped out"? The UAW already did that with two-tier employees and concessions on their last contract.The Big 3 have never, ever locked out the UAW. The Big 3 have agreed to every collective bargaining agreement since WWII. Neither side will change.
  • El scotto Never mind that that F-1 is a bigger circus than EBFlex and Tassos shopping together for their new BDSM outfits and personal lubricants. Also, the F1 rumor mill churns more than EBFlex's mind choosing a new Sharpie to make his next "Free Candy" sign for his white Ram work van. GM will spend a year or two learning how things work in F1. By the third or fourth year GM will have a competitive "F-1 LS" engine. After they win a race or two Ferrari will protest to highest F-1 authorities. Something not mentioned: Will GM get tens of millions of dollars from F-1? Ferrari gets 30 million a year as a participation trophy.