UAW Membership Falls 18 Percent, To Lowest Level Since WWII
According to the Detroit News, the United Auto Workers lost nearly 76,000 members in 2009, dropping membership to 355,191, the lowest level since the end of the second world war. UAW membership has fallen nearly in half since 2001, when the union boasted 701,818 members, and has been in steady decline since peaking at 1.53m in 1979. Ironically, the drop in membership comes as the UAW is seeking to expand outside of the contracting auto industry, but gains from organizing teaching assistants, auto dealership employees, health care workers and casino dealers have not been able to stem the tide of losses from the auto industry. And though the union scored something of a coup by securing representation at the new Fisker plant in Delaware, another 4,600 members will be lost when NUMMI closes on April 1. These losses, combined with the loss of 50 local offices, and the union’s inability to organize workers at transplant auto plants all seem to indicate continued decline for the union, which is widely seen as a key contributor to the decades-long collapse of of America’s automakers. But don’t write off the UAW just yet.
The UAW is still a formidable force in American politics, spending about $9.7m on lobbying last year, a slight decline from 2008’s $10.6m spend. The UAW assets and receipts have fallen slightly but are still respectable, as the union brought in $277m last year (down $38m), and total assets fell a mere 70m to $1.13b. And as 55 percent owners of Chrysler and 17.5 percent stakeholders in GM, the union’s VEBA healthcare trust is perhaps the most visible symbol of the UAW’s power. Indeed, the VEBA representative on GM’s board, Stephen Girsky, is an up-and-coming senior advisor to Chairman/CEO Ed Whitacre, and increasingly strong presence in GM’s strategy formulation.
But the union’s equity stakes in GM and Chrysler are perhaps the greatest challenges to its continued success. Though union leadership long resisted accepting company stock to fund health care obligations, last year’s bailout left them with little choice. As a result, trust between workers and union bosses (who made an average of $130,583 last year) is weak, as evidenced by protests and anger at the NUMMI plant. As long as the union’s VEBA trust has to balance the needs of workers with the value of their stock holdings in GM and Chrysler, rank-and-file union members will question which priority is most important to the UAW. As long as workers have a hard time telling whether their union bosses are looking out for them or their company stock, it will be near-impossible for the UAW to present itself as an attractive proposition to the nation’s auto workers.
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