What does the UAW offer today's workers?

After its narrow defeat at Volkswagen's Chattanooga plant, the UAW needs to engage in some serious soul-searching.

The vote was close: 626 for the UAW vs. 712 against, a margin of a mere 86 votes. About 165 workers did not vote, implying they didn't care or couldn't make sense of the arguments for or against approving the UAW to represent their interests.

Either way, the number of no voters and nonvoters is a stunning indictment of the UAW's ability to make a convincing case that membership offers enough benefits to an individual worker in an auto assembly plant.

It's time for the UAW to rethink what it's selling.

A good starting point would be this: Membership in a union is entirely voluntary, so joining a union must be based on what it can do for its members today. Appealing to a sense of history -- invoking the UAW's role in building America's middle class or recalling such watershed events as the Battle of the Overpass or the Flint sit-down strike -- is meaningless to 21st century workers.

Quite bluntly, today's worker asks, "What's in it for me?" It's a valid question. And it is telling that the UAW apparently did not have a good enough answer in Chattanooga when VW's position was as neutral -- some would say supportive -- as the UAW is likely to encounter in the South.

There are benefits the UAW could tout, such as its safety expertise. Because the UAW is present in a wide variety of auto factories, its understanding of how to ensure a safe working environment should be at least as deep as management's. Since both management and workers want safer factories, it's an area in which the UAW could showcase its avowed new policy of cooperation rather than confrontation.

There may be other opportunities.

But the leaders at Solidarity House must determine what the UAW offers that workers cannot find elsewhere, acknowledge that benefits trump history and find a way to market those benefits effectively to nonunionized workers. Fail that, and they will have to accept a future in which their union is increasingly irrelevant.

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