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UAW: Now for the hard part

Nov 24, 2015

This should be a holiday of thanksgiving indeed for the United Auto Workers union. It successfully negotiated contracts this fall that give its members big raises and bonuses.

The Tier II workers who have been working at a lesser pay schedule now have a clear path to parity with the longtime workers. Workers are also getting large “signing bonuses” that may pump nearly $3 billion into the Michigan economy just in time for Christmas.

Best of all, though there are many fewer workers than there once were, the companies are profitable and healthy again. Seven years ago, I was on a television show listening to industry analyst Kristen Dziczek talk about the million or more jobs that would be lost if the Detroit Three were to go out of business, something that seemed all too possible then.

Yet behind the settlements, the union is facing enormous problems ahead. These contracts are sweeter than I had supposed the union would be able to get. But selling the deal to the membership was unexpectedly hard. Chrysler workers angrily rejected the first contract union leaders negotiated. Skilled trade workers at General Motors did reject their contract, which essentially had to be imposed on them by the union.

And though the Ford contract was the sweetest of all, it was nearly defeated, being saved at the last moment by late-voting Dearborn workers after impassioned pleas from the union. There won’t be another round of contract negotiations for four years.

America will have a new president and Michigan a new governor then, and nobody has any idea what shape the economy will be in.

The UAW will also have a new leader. The auto union and The New York Times are the only two major institutions I know that require their leaders to step down after they turn 65. This was not only Dennis Williams’ first contract negotiation, but his last. I am intrigued by the thought that the new UAW leader might be the charismatic Cindy Estrada, currently the union’s vice-president in charge of General Motors.

If that were to happen, she would become the union’s first female and first Hispanic leader. Additionally, she is also only 46 years old. If she were to become the next UAW president, she would potentially have a good 15 years to put her stamp on the union and the industry.

We could well have a situation where both the union and the nation’s biggest automaker are led simultaneously by women, something I’m sure Walter Reuther and Henry Ford never imagined. But even before that, the union faces big challenges.

Michigan is now a right-to-work state, and the National Right to Work Foundation is going to make a major effort to get Fiat Chrysler workers to stop paying dues. That would have been inconceivable when I was growing up, when there were still plenty of old men who could talk about what life was like before the union. But they’re all gone now.

Whoever leads this union also needs to find a way to connect with younger workers. Additionally, the companies are still being tempted to move production, especially of passenger cars, to Mexico. The United Auto Workers have won new contracts. Now for the hard part.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.