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.
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.
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 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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