Remember the UAW?

Remember the UAW? As with dial phones, phonograph records and the Beatles, those under 40 who aren't deeply entrenched in the automotive industry may find themselves staring blankly at those three letters.

There was a time when everyone in America knew the United Auto Workers union, all the way up to the President of the United States – and no matter which party was in power. Born of the fractious sit-down strikes that brought General Motors to its knees more than seven decades ago, the UAW could make or break politicians – and auto companies. It transformed poorly paid factory workers into affluent middle-class Americans. And it helped shepherd some of the most progressive social measures of the post-War period into law.

But these days, much of that must be said in past tense. After losing 76,000 members last year, the UAW's roles now stand at barely 355,000 – a shadow of the union's 1979 peak of 1.5 million members. Many of the gains of the past are gone; in 2007, negotiators made some of the biggest concessions ever to help Detroit's Big Three regain some of their competitiveness. Even more givebacks followed last year in order to help GM and Chrysler win the multi-billion-dollar federal bailouts that kept each company afloat.

Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

"We've had our share of disappointments and setbacks," conceded Ron Gettelfinger, the Auto Workers union's outgoing president, as he opened up the 35th UAW convention in Detroit.

There are those who would point their finger at the retiring union leader for approving such things as a two-tier wage package that barely keeps many parts workers and even new assembly line hires on the lower rungs of the middle-class ladder. But it's hard to imagine what anyone else might have accomplished during Gettelfinger's tenure.

The Japanese could maintain their quality and hold down costs even with American workers. Non-union American workers.
His fire-breathing predecessor, Steve Yokich might have come across like a dragon, but even he had to accept a changing status quo. It all began to change during the twin oil shocks of the 1970s, when Americans started buying low-cost, high-mileage imports from then-unknown brands like Toyota and Honda. Even when the focus shifted away from fuel economy, the foreign brands kept gaining ground based on product designs that seemed more in touch with shifting market demands. And the Japanese rewrote the rules on quality and reliability.

The UAW – and Detroit leaders like former Ford Chairman Red Polling – thought they could use their diminishing clout to force the Asians to shift production to the States. They learned – too late – to be careful what they asked for. Once Honda opened its first "transplant" assembly line in Marysville, OH, it quickly became apparent the Japanese could maintain their quality, and hold down costs, even with American workers. Non-union American workers, it turned out.

Time and again, the Autoworkers Union has tried and failed to organize the transplants. There were only a few exceptions, like the NUMMI plant, near San Francisco, that Toyota opened as part of a joint venture with General Motors. But GM walked away after last year's bankruptcy and Toyota subsequently announced it would close the facility, its only organized U.S. assembly line.

Last year's vote by Congress not to approve a bailout for GM and Chrysler – which forced the Obama Administration to find an alternative source of cash – underscored the UAW's declining clout. Today, the transplants have dotted the American map, but mostly in "Red" Southern states; Republican and anti-organized labor, their elected officials openly used the bailout debate to denounce and diminish the union.

"The contempt for the UAW was so deep that some of them were willing to let the industry collapse in the hopes they could destroy us," Gettelfinger asserted during his opening speech.

There are those who believe the union's opponents just might succeed, albeit less immediately. There seems little chance to break into the transplants, and even after targeting non-automotive workers with aggressive organizing drives, the UAW can't seem to halt its membership slide. Sure senior lawmakers still take Gettelfinger's call, but his successor, Bob King, will have an even harder time influencing the legislative debate that has taken America in a more conservative direction.

There is an irony to that. While the news media tend to focus on the anti-government aspect of the Tea Party movement, there's a simmering frustration with the way big business has taken hold of the country. It's not just the environmental disaster that has BP at its center, but the way we all have become, increasingly, cogs in a machine that demands ever-increasing productivity, no matter what the cost.

Could the UAW and the rest of the labor movement somehow tap into that resentment the way a certain Alaskan has harnessed today's libertarian streak? Perhaps, though the politics of a post-modern union could shift into an entirely different direction than we've seen for the past three-quarters of a century.

Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

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