Once upon a time half a century ago, covering the Labor Beat was a big deal, both nationally and in Detroit, home of both the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters unions, with their respective leaders, Walter Reuther and Jimmy Hoffa, in the news practically every day. Major media, and TV did not count in those days, had dedicated slots for “labor writers” or “labor editors.” I was one of them, as part of my duties covering the auto industry.
At the time, the UAW was more than just autoworkers. Its reach included farm equipment workers and the aircraft industry (dating from World War II).They were the intellectual leaders of America’s union movement. Moreover, in truth, Reuther’s UAW invented many of the benefits that the middle class now counts as its birthright.
After Reuther was killed in a plane crash in Northern Michigan and his team of old-line incorruptible Socialists began to age out, the Union lost its fervor. Gone in my opinion was its vision and its mission — due to circumstances beyond its control, namely Detroit’s declining share of the U.S. auto market and the transplants that the UAW could not organize.
Some union members and local leaders went un-chastised by Solidarity House (UAW Headquarters in Detroit) when they got involved in disability scams with crooked lawyers. The UAW vigorously defended a Michigan metal stamping plant employee caught urinating on a stack of newly pressed steel panels. Likewise, a bunch of UAW workers left an Ohio auto plant for a bar across the street, where they got into a big enough fight for the cops to be called in. On investigation, it turned out they were all checked in at the plant, supposedly earning their nice hourly wages and benefits, and once again, the union supported them.
A telltale book, 1991’s Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line, about workers in Flint auto plants being drugged out or drunk on the job, deliberately sabotaging their products, was brushed off by UAW officials.
The UAW did become more concerned about the issue in recent years, especially in terms of drug and alcohol issues, though as likely as not, when there were arrests for in-plant dealing, it was the union that would call for treatment instead of dismissal.
Meanwhile, this situation crossed both sides of the border, before and after what was the truly international UAW lost half of its operations to the newly formed Canadian Auto Workers, two decades ago.