Politics & Prejudices
UAW fails in Chattanooga
Farewell, union; farewell, roads.
Published: February 18, 2014
A dozen or so years ago, I criticized the United Auto Workers union for some boneheaded move or other. Doug Fraser, one of the union’s legendary leaders, circled my harshest comment and sent the column to Millie Jeffrey.
Fraser was then a professor of labor relations at Wayne State University, where I teach. Jeffrey, for many years the highest-ranking woman in the UAW leadership, was an elected member of Wayne State’s Board of Governors. In the margin next to where I attacked the union leadership, he had written:
“So who is telling him all our secrets!”
They were secure enough to have senses of humor, and to be able to laugh at themselves and their successors. Both Fraser and Jeffrey were great leaders and great human beings, who had risked their lives and livelihoods, back in the day, to give autoworkers a decent wage, vacations, health care.
They were among the plucky few who, in fact, brought working people vacations and the weekend.
I admired and personally liked both a lot. They are dead now, and, this weekend, I have to say that part of me was glad about that. Because something happened that made it clear that the union that was their life’s work is almost certainly going to dwindle into irrelevance and, eventually, die.
For the first time ever, the UAW had a real shot at organizing a “transplant,” the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tenn. Remarkably, VW did not oppose the union, and organizers were careful to stress they hoped to work along with management, not against them.
But when the results were announced on Valentine’s Day, 53.2 percent had voted against the union. Dismayingly, the plant’s workers listened to U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican who was perhaps the biggest foe of the bailouts that saved the auto industry.
They were evidently brainwashed by billboards erected outside the plant that showed the ruins of the Packard works, with the slogan: “Detroit: Brought to you by the UAW.”
The billboards were paid for by the anti-government fanatic Grover Norquist. It would be hard to exaggerate how devastating this is to the incredibly shrinking autoworkers union.
From the time he became the UAW’s 10th president four years ago, Bob King vowed he would start organizing foreign “transplant” auto factories, most of which are in the South.
Give him this much: He realized doing so was essential if his union is to survive. Back in the 1970s, every automotive worker in the nation was a member of the UAW, which reached a peak of 1.6 million members. Then, the Japanese started building factories in this country, mostly in the South.
To keep the union out, they paid relatively high wages, and it worked. Eventually, European and Korean automakers followed. Incredibly, the UAW didn’t seem to take this seriously at first. By the time they did, it was too late. What organizing efforts they made failed. The union began a steep decline, as the no-longer-Big Three shriveled and their payrolls nosedived.
Today, the UAW has fewer than 400,000 members, at least a third of whom are in non-automotive occupations. Yes, the union has had some recent successes, mostly bizarre ones. They managed to organize, if you can believe it, a few thousand postdoctoral scholars at the University of California.
But their dues aren’t going to keep the lights on at Solidarity House. The union desperately needed a success at organizing a foreign-run auto plant. But they failed.
Though Bob King has been muttering about challenging the results, it really wasn’t even close. These folks knew what the UAW was offering; 89 percent of them voted; most said no.
There are some who will blame this on Bob King — and, truthfully, he has been a mostly ineffectual leader. Two years ago, he squandered precious resources on a ballot campaign to try to get an amendment protecting collective bargaining into the Michigan Constitution. When it failed, predictably and badly, vindictive Republicans made this a right-to-work state.
Perhaps most damningly, he did nothing to reverse the disastrous “two-tier” wage system, which means any new hire assembly line workers are paid a little more than half what longtime workers get. The latter, by the way, who make $28 an hour, haven’t had a raise in years. New hires make barely half that.
They don’t make enough to buy the products they build, something even old Henry Ford the First realized was essential for a stable workforce and a stable economy.
The union, which was willing to accept that, is now talking about a dues increase for their members. (Gosh, I can’t imagine why they’re finding “Join the UAW” a tough sell.)
This is a tragedy, because, in some ways, workers may need union protection now more than ever. But union leadership can’t seem to find a way of representing workers in a way attractive enough to make them join a union.
Imagine what level of pay and benefits workers can count on when unions finally disappear. Actually, you don’t need much imagination. You can read about it in history.
Or see it today in Haiti. If anyone has any idea how to turn things around, you better tell the UAW, quick. They’ll be electing a new president to replace Bob King this year.
> Email Jack Lessenberry