Once Mighty U.S. Auto Union Faces Uncertain Future

June 14, 2010
Union membership which peaked at 1.5 million in 1979 continues to drop and has fallen to less than 355,000 today.

Born out of the strife in the U.S. auto industry during the 1930s, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union has long had a reputation for delivering fat contracts. Today UAW is staring at its own fading political power.

As the union prepares for its quadrennial convention on June 14 to select its next leaders, the UAW is confronted with questions over the steady erosion of its public image, a loosened grip on bargaining power, and the once-mighty union's very future.

For the past five years members of the union most closely associated with the troubled auto industry have been forced to make painful concessions. The UAW began making concessions to help American carmakers survive in 2005, before the worst recession in decades sent auto sales plunging in 2008 and 2009.

The union's health-care concessions at GM in 2005 reduced the company's annual fixed costs by three billion dollars, but left many members bitter over lost perks.

The union lobbied for a government bailout of the troubled industry in 2008 and 2009, but in exchange was forced to accept wage cuts, reduced health care benefits and squeezed pensions.

Faced with those unwanted cuts, autoworkers have shown their discontent by dropping out, and union membership which peaked at 1.5 million in 1979 continues to drop and has fallen to less than 355,000 today.

The opposition to the pay and benefit concessions sanctioned by the union's executive board for the past four years has found a voice in the last minute campaign for the union presidency by Gary Walkowicz. Walkowicz, the chairman of bargaining unit at the Ford Motor Co. truck plant in Dearborn, Michigan, was elected as a convention delegate on a platform opposing any future concessions.

"We said that this policy needs a drastic, 180-degree change," said Walkowicz, adding the concessions have diminished union members' standard of living and prospects for the future.

Longtime UAW officer Bob King, who now heads the union's Ford department, was selected as the UAW executive board's preferred candidate to succeed incumbent Ron Gettelfinger.

Even Walkowicz acknowledged when he announced his candidacy he expects King to win UAW presidency during the carefully scripted four-day convention. Executive board or "administration caucus" nominees have won the union's top post in every election since the late 1940s.

"But we think it is important that there be at least one person nominated at this convention who clearly stands for a drastic change in policy for our union," said Walkowicz, who spearheaded the successful opposition to additional concession at Ford last fall. Dissidents also blocked new contracts at five GM plants earlier this year.

Jerry Tucker, a former member of the UAW's executive board, said the convention could provoke a much needed vote about the union's future. "Workers have been uncertain recently about which side the union is on," said Tucker.

"Our members in the domestic auto industry have been making wave after wave of union leadership-promoted concessions to ruthless, irresponsible corporations," he said.

"And today we have little other than an industrial landscape of empty, idle plants, ridiculous two-tier wage schemes, busted family budgets, gripping retirement health care and pension insecurity, to show for it."

Gettelfinger has said the concessions have saved General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, which are now poised to add jobs as the economy recovers. "Chrysler is getting ready to hire new workers for the first time in 10 years," Gettelfinger said.

King also has said he expects the union to recover some of the concessions at the bargaining table next year and that the union intends that rewards from the auto industry's recovery be handed out fairly.

"I'm very upset with the situation (at Ford) where there were merit increases and (retirement savings plan contributions). That's wrong," King said.

Under the terms of the agreements signed with the U.S. Treasury last year, the union is unable to strike for economic gain and King already has said he doesn't want to put any automaker -- such as Ford, which received no federal bailout money -- at a competitive disadvantage.

Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California-Berkeley, said King has given a great deal of thought to the multiple issues facing the UAW.

"He wants to rebuild the union's image," Shaiken said.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010

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