The Once Powerful UAW Takes Another Step Toward Meaninglessness

toyota worker auto assembly line


The United Auto Workers once brought Detroit’s giants to their knees to get the goods for their workers. Today the union that battled with police and strike breaking goons in the famous Flint Sit Down Strike of 1936-1937 is looking for a more collaborative approach to negotiations with management.

The UAW, like most unions, is coping with a dwindling membership base and uncertainty about the resilience of the manufacturing sector in the United States. Faced with uncertainty over the long term security of union jobs, even the UAW has to participate in a race to the bottom of sorts.

Right now, the union is in the midst of labour contract negotiations with Chrysler, and if they don’t allow more concessions, they will almost certainly not win back the concessions that were made in 2009 when two of the big three were on the brink of bankruptcy.  UAW workers, like the 23,000 hourly workers they represent at Chrysler have already seen their wages drop from $76 to $52 since 2006.

Even though the auto makers are in the black, the union is still more concerned about keeping the companies competitive, even if that means allowing pay and benefit cuts.

The UAW is also fighting for their own relevance.  The union’s membership is down to less than one quarter of 1979 peak of 1.53 million. They have had particular trouble organising in so-called ‘transplant factories’–US factories that assemble foreign-brand cars.  The Economist writes that thanks to the recent concessions and the nearly equal pay of non-union workers, the rank and file at transplant factories are not sure that there is anything to gain at all from joining.

The other reason why the unions are playing nice is legal.  One of the government’s conditions for the bailout money was a ban on strikes.  Ford doesn’t have that benefit, since they did not take federal money. But UAW president Bob King is far from considering a strike.

“The culture between labour and management in the auto industry with ford with GM ,and Chrysler is lets work on problems together, lets solve problems together,” King told Bloomberg. “We really understand that we are tied together. The companies have to be successful for our members to have decent standards of living, decent pensions, secure retirements.”

“At the end of the day, nobody has got more of a vested interest in the long-term success of these companies than the hourly workforce.”


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