Commentary
10:21 am
Thu March 24, 2011

The UAW’s Dilemma

You may not have noticed, but the United Auto Workers union has been holding its bargaining convention in Detroit this week.

Every four years, union leaders get together to plan and map out their strategy for negotiating a new contract with the automakers. Once, this convention was an enormous deal, intensely covered by both local and national labor media.

The big question every time was - which company would be the strike target?

Years ago, the union came up with the concept of “pattern bargaining.”  One company - Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler, would be selected as the target. Union officials would then try and hammer out a contact with that automaker first.

Sometimes they’d have to go on strike to achieve that; sometimes not. Meanwhile, the workers at the other companies would keep working under the old labor agreements.

Once the new contract was finally hammered out, the unions would then go to the other two automakers and say -- “okay; this is what we negotiated with them; this is what you need to agree to as well.  No fooling around; take it or leave it; sign or we walk.”

That’s how it’s been done for many, many years. In the past, there were sometimes historic strikes which led to historic settlements that gradually won the workers everything from paid vacations to profit sharing to dental care, on top of high wages.

But as all the world knows, excesses and globalization caught up with the auto companies. General Motors and Chrysler nearly went out of business less than two years ago. They survived in part because the union was willing to make major concessions.

New hires, for example, now make half of what a longtime autoworker  does -- $14 an hour, or $29,000 a year. The union decided that and other sacrifices were  necessary to keep their employers alive.

Well, the world is different now. Ford and General Motors are now making profits in the billions. Chrysler is believed close to profitability, and at any rate, has a new owner with deep pockets.

Many in the UAW believe it is their turn to be rewarded and compensated for the sacrifices they’ve made. The companies, however, talk as if the concessions need to be permanent. They know the day when they dominated the national and even world auto markets are gone.

Some of the union’s clout is gone, too. Thirty-odd years ago, the UAW had one point six million members nationwide. Today, that’s down to three hundred and fifty thousand. A third of those aren’t even in auto-related occupations. Put another way, ninety percent of the blue-collar, General Motors jobs in the state in 1979 are gone.

When the bargaining talks begin in earnest later this year, the UAW isn’t just out to get a better contract. Union President Bob King knows the union is in a struggle to stay relevant, and survive.

He knows the union’s future depends on whether it can begin organizing workers at the “transplants” -- those factories built by foreign automakers in America. So far, they’ve had no success.

The union’s future depends on changing that. For those interested in the labor movement, we’re likely to be in for a few very interesting years.