• Jul 13, 2010
Back when I was a UAW member many moons ago, earning my college tuition by busting my ass in the factories, the union was an incredibly powerful labor organization. With nearly 1.3 million members, it had enormous political clout in Washington, D.C. And thanks to a monopoly on automotive labor, it could bring the entire American auto industry to a grinding halt by merely snapping its fingers. But then the world changed.
First, all the major Japanese automakers began building assembly plants in the United States, later followed by the Europeans and Koreans. With very few exceptions, they managed to keep the union out. Then the Detroit Three began outsourcing most of the parts that they used to make in-house. The vast majority of that work went to non-union suppliers. Bye-bye monopoly.

Today the UAW has only 350,000 active members and 600,000 retirees. Many experts wonder if it can survive at that level. And while the union's new president Bob King vows to increase membership with a renewed emphasis on organizing, that's exactly what the last three UAW presidents claimed they were going to do. So can the union claw its way back, or is it headed for oblivion?





John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as a Detroit insider to Autoblog readers.



In the short-term, the UAW is definitely going to add members. Remember, the Detroit Three are at record low levels of production right now. As long as car sales continue to recover General Motors, Ford and Chrysler will likely hire thousands of hourly workers, all of whom will be required to join the union. And since all new hires will earn only $14.50 an hour, half the previous rate, it makes it easy to hire more of them.

The only way the UAW can regain its former glory is by organizing the transplants and the non-union suppliers.
But that's not enough. The only way the UAW can regain its former glory is by organizing the transplants and the non-union suppliers. That won't be easy. Not only are transplants and suppliers vehemently opposed to the UAW, it's also in competition with other unions. The Teamsters already made a run at organizing Honda. The United Steelworkers, and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers currently represent automotive workers. And thanks to NAFTA, the UAW faces union competition north and south of the border.

But that doesn't mean it's a lost cause. The UAW has a BFF in the White House. President Obama has banked a lot of political capital with the labor movement. And while the Administration is not likely to get passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, better known as the card check, which would make it much easier to unionize a factory or a company, the National Labor Relations Board is now going to be far friendlier to union organizing efforts than it has been in decades.

Moreover, with the dollar weaker against most major currencies imported cars and parts are not as cheap as they used to be. That means more production will be moving back to the United States which gives the union a crack at getting some of those jobs. Plus, Toyota's factory workers in the United States now average about 43 years old. It's possible the UAW could now make inroads with them by addressing their pension and retirement concerns.

The UAW is organizing protests at Toyota dealerships to put pressure on the company by driving away business.
And there's another key development to keep an eye on. Japanese line workers are worried about production moving out of Japan to low-cost countries. European unions are fighting to prevent work being moved to Eastern Europe. And Chinese autoworkers are clamoring for higher wages. Bob King, the new UAW president, is already using his bully pulpit to reach out to unions and workers in other parts of the world. Clearly their goals and interests are starting to converge. Working in concert they could exert enormous pressure on automakers.

If the UAW were able to crack even one of the transplants, chances are that it would have a good chance at organizing all of them. After that, getting the suppliers to fall in line would be fairly easy to achieve. And that could easily double the UAW's membership.

Keep a close eye on the union's efforts to organize Toyota, first at NUMMI (even though it's no longer a Toyota plant) and then in Blue Springs, Mississippi. Toyota is suffering through a public relations nightmare with its recalls right now, and the UAW smells blood. It's organizing protests at Toyota dealerships to put pressure on the company by driving away business. If the union could organize Toyota it would be a game changer.

The union is desperately aware that this is its last chance.
The UAW has been through a lot in the last 30 years, but nothing like the last 12 months. It really got its teeth kicked in with the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies. Now the union is desperately aware that this is its last chance.

The choices are easy. The UAW can keep on doing what it's been doing and watch its membership slowly dwindle away over the next decade or two. Or it can put everything it's got into pulling off a roaring comeback. We'll know soon enough how it's going to go. The fight is already underway.


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  • 26 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      Coincidentally, Peter De Lorenzo's latest (tomorrow's) Rant is up at The Autoextremist, and it's all about Bob King:

      "The Sh!t Disturber Cometh"
      http://www.autoextremist.com/
      • 4 Years Ago
      Everyone should listen to episode #410 of the public radio program This American Life titled "Social Contract". The 'second act' of the show contrasts the GDP of Jamaica versus that of its neighbor, Barbados. In Barbados, great lessons can be learned from the business community and the unions deciding to act as economic partners instead of economic enemies made to submit.

      http://www.thisamericanlife.org/sites/all/download.php?ep=410

      Much to the chagrin of predictable anti-UAW, anti-union commenters, business interests and union interests CAN co-exist. And its happening right here, right now, on American soil.

      The greatest mistake the UAW or any union can make is believing in a return to a 'golden era' way of operating. In my opinion, the UAW shouldn't worry as much about traditional union membership as much as it should be a national vehicle for employee rights advocacy. A 'New UAW' should be educating all employees (wage, salaried, and commissioned, regardless of industry) about federal and state labor laws in the same way the NRA acts with gun laws. It should shame companies (at the local level) who are moving jobs out of the country. It should champion living wages and salaries for service economy workers--just because a job is considered 'unskilled' doesn't mean basic competency for it should be ignored, or that person holding it should struggle to pay rent or transportation.

      • 4 Years Ago
      We can only hope its headed toward oblivion.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Sometimes John McElroy is the typical Detroit conventional wisdom thinker.

        This is one of those times.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @Luis
        You and your ilk still don't get it. Yes, unions achieved a lot of social and workplace justice IN THE PAST. But there are LAWS in today's society to guard against those injustices you mentioned above. Unions have run their course. It's time to let them ride of (stumble) into the sunset.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Unions in and of themselves are not the problem. They do serve a very necessary and useful purpose. The problem is their organization. Unions have not evolved and grown with the changing market around them. Worse, in fact, they refuse. Our government, economy and industry have moved on and changed. Its time organized labor does as well.

        A paradigm shift is needed in organized labor. They can not operate under bully tactics and an "Us vs. Them" mentality. They can no longer *force* membership. What they need is to restructure as a professional association. Their mission would still be the same; to secure improved working conditions, fair pay and benefits, workplace safety, etc. What would change are their tactics. The American public has grown tired of their demanding and selfish methods.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @Dar: and who is going to lookout to make sure those laws stay on the books? and new ones are created that protect workers against things we dont even know about yet? I honestly am flabbergasted at the corporate-apologists in here....amazed!

        No wonder CEOs get bailouts while the unemployed get the shaft. It's disgusting how much the average person has been brainwashed into being subservient to the corporate gods.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @ Luis

        "Unions served an important purpose"

        Exactly right - served. Past tense.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Luis,

      "So exactly where are non-unionized teachers doing better? " What about your concern for those unionized teachers STUDENTS!

      Unions should be outlawed for government jobs, like teaching.

      Luis, try getting out of Massachusetts or where ever you are and see how well the rest of the country does without unions! Are you really so insecure that you have to have those corrupt union leaders to protect you? Are is that you're just used to it and afraid of the real world?
      • 4 Years Ago
      American workers are in a pickle because of globalization, but the UAWs brand of unionism is not the answer.

      As a 69 year old retiree I have seen what the UAW along with incompetent and self centered managment in Detroit can accomplish; almost the entire destruction of the American automobile industry.

      The UAW for far too long saw the auto companies as the enemy, to be defeated and humbled and not as the golden goose. It put in place, largely because the companies themselves were too timid to resist, work rules and practices which built in unsustainable costs and inflexible practices which not only produced bad cars but expensive ones at that.

      Any American truly committed to quality work and fair pricing in the car they drive should thank the Japanese for how they persevered and how they forced Detroit and the UAW to change. While it has been painful, much of it could have been avoided if UAW leadership has seen itself more as a partner to the companies which employed their members than as a force to destroy them.

      Many industries today need strong unions to protect worker interests; the automobile industry is pretty far down that list.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Thank you for injecting some common sense. The anti-unionists here are confusing the movement of organized workers with boneheadedness of the UAW. The downfall of Detroit is the fault of and organization and management. Unfortunately "greedy" workers get all the blame while the managers hide behind fat paychecks. There's always the need for give and take but the corporate-apologists in here only believe in taking as much as possible from every corner. This has to end.

        We need the collective society to be able to organize to counter the weight and influence that the millions (billions?) in dollars that only some individuals can throw into the political arena, destroying the livelihoods of the average Joe on the street. Workers aren't the enemy...unfortunately they've gotten a bad rap.
      • 4 Years Ago
      600k retirees and 350k workers?

      The only way that's going to work is if they get BP too.
      • 4 Years Ago
      HA HA HA?
      • 4 Years Ago
      For the sake of the entire Auto Industry the UAW needs to fail. A union that is around soley to make money and expand to me defeats its purpose. When was the last time we heard about the UAW doing anything ground breaking in terms of helping its employers? The last time we heard about them forcing one of the Automakers to change something along the plant line to improve saftey? The only thing I remember the UAW doing is forcing strikes and asking the Automakers to fork over more money for health care and higher hourly wages.

      Also how much does the UAW charge in terms of Union Dues? Imagine all the money each person would safe yearly if they didnt have to shell out for the dues? That money I'm sure could easily go torwards their health care, or I dunno help them pay the rent.

      The UAW's current stance (of its new president atleast) to expand by pressuring Toyota via its dealers will win them no favors in the media and the public at large.
      • 4 Years Ago
      The UAW only has itself to blame for its current irrelevancy.

      They won the battle for high wages (that are too high) and by doing so, lost the 'war' in the long run. Now it only exists to feed itself, not to actually improve the situation of their members.

      I have nothing against unions in principle, but it seems they long ago should have disbanded on their own for the most part now that there are numerous legal protections in place.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I don't see how the UAW can organize the transplants since a lot of them have been open over 20 years. Also a lot of non-union suppliers are pretty small. If they tried to unionize the companies would just close them and re-open somewhere else.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Luis:
      You are fighting a losing battle on this site...it's filled with right wing redneck car junkies...cut your losses...
      But I agree, anyone who thinks the government or corporations are going to keep our (citizens) best interests at heart have a very short term memory...never mind what the big companies did 100 years ago, look at what they did in the last few years...unions, or a version of them, will always be needed to protect workers and citizens, even if laws are there....laws can and have been changed and will be in the future...
      msroll
      • 4 Years Ago
      Most CEO's make over 100 times as much as their employees do. What to they bring to the product. All they do is answer to the board of directors and hire veeps to run the company. Someone has close this wage gap. It sure won't be the government. America needs more unions not less. You make 36,000 your CEO makes at least 3.6 mil. don't forget that's before 3 mil. bonus full health care, 401k, car with insurance gas plus many more perks. Get rid of unions? Our kids will have to get a job just to support the family. You may think it would never happen. Remember when mom didn't have to work?
        • 4 Years Ago
        @msroll
        "Remember when mom didn't have to work?"

        The reason Mom has to work is - government taxes! In the 1950's the total tax burden on families was about 5% of income. Today it's about 24%. In order to have the same standard of living, mom HAS to work. I moved out of my home state because I realized I could not make a livable wage if my wife stayed at home with our young children. And I was a professional who didn't make a low wage at all. All of the couples I know back in my home state have both spouses working. Which is fine when your kids are in school but not so great when they are babies.

        • 4 Years Ago
        @msroll
        Who cares what the CEO makes even if you took his whole paycheck and distributed it to every employee equally it wouldn't make much difference. The question is are you being fairly compensated for your work? What is the fair wage for a high school educated assembler? 50k? 100K?

        When has the UAW been able to control that anyway? Look at what Wagoner made compared to Japanese and German CEOs.

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