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UAW Membership at Lowest Level Since WWII

Declining membership complicated by financial problems.

by on Mar.31, 2010

Bob King, the incoming president of the UAW, will inherit a union that is now less than a quarter of its size 31 years ago.

Membership in the increasingly troubled United Auto Workers Union has dropped to its lowest level since the end of World War II, even as the union struggles to deal with worsening financial problems.

The UAW lost some 76,000 members just between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010, according to reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The union finished fiscal 2009 with 355,000 active members, the union report said, less than a quarter of the 1979 peak, when the UAW’s dues-paying ranks topped 1.5 million.

The decline in membership is only part of the Detroit-based labor organization’s problems.  It ran $2 million over budget, last year.  Meanwhile, disgruntled UAW members recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Labor Management Standards, charging top union officials with using their offices to give friends and family members jobs.

The Department of Labor has declined to say whether it will investigate the complaint, which underscores the growing disenchantment not only among members but also the union’s demoralized staff.

Union staff members three times voted down a proposed contract calling for concessions. The UAW’s executive board had demanded the concessions to bolster the union’s finances and to bring the staff contract more into line with the contract changes the recession has imposed on other union members.
Complicating a bad situation, many auto workers have been openly expressing disaffection with the selection of long-time local UAW boss Bob King as successor to Ron Gettelfinger, who will retire as the union’s top elected official next year.

Despite such problems, Gettelfinger and other UAW leaders insist there are some positive signs on the UAW’s horizon.  They are counting on a new wave of hiring by the automakers  to help bolster the union’s membership in the next couple of years – even as the UAW tries to organize in other sectors of the workforce.

General Motors is stepping up production at several plants making its most popular models – though one increase, announced earlier this month, will take place in a suburban Toronto facility covered by the Canadian Auto Workers Union, which split off from the UAW two decades ago.
Chrysler Group, meanwhile, confirmed it is accepting hourly applications in Belvidere, Illinois, and Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Part of the UAW’s problem is its continuing inability to organize at the many “transplant” assembly lines set up in the U.S. in recent years by manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and BMW.  The only transplants represented by the union were originally started as joint ventures with American makers, such as the Ford-Mazda facility in Flat Rock, Michigan.  And one of those joint operations, suburban San Francisco’s NUMMI, will soon close.  Toyota decided not to continue operations there after General Motors pulled out following its 2009 bankruptcy.

Foreign-based makers have often used scare tactics to block unionization, pointing to the UAW’s often-confrontational past and warning workers that signing on with the union would threaten their jobs.

“Contrary to what some people may believe, the UAW and other unions have no interest in tearing down employers. It’s counterproductive to our goal of protecting workers. We need employers to succeed so workers have a chance to share in that success,”  Gettelfinger said in a recent speech.
“We worked closely with Chrysler, Ford and General Motors before, during and since the global economic downturn slammed automakers around the world in 2008 and 2009. We knew the only way for those companies to survive was through our involvement in the process and finding a way forward that benefits everyone,” he said.
Reviving the transplant organizing drive will fall into the hands of Gettelfinger’s successor.  With the continuing decline of the UAW’s ranks at traditional Detroit factories, it will become even more critical going forward.

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