UNITED STATES For the past six years, the U.S. auto industry has been setting sales records. It has expanded production, added factories and run plants on overtime to keep up. So why is the United Auto Workers union membership at a 54-year low?
It is a question that clearly concerns Bob King, vice president for organizing at the UAW's Solidarity House headquarters in Detroit. 'It has to turn around,' King says. 'We're pursuing a couple of strategies, and I'm very encouraged.'
King and the rest of the union are fighting to restore the union to its glory days. As recently as the late 1970s, the union represented virtually every car, truck and engine plant in America. It had more than 1.5 million dues-paying members. But last year, membership dipped to 728,510, according to the annual report the union filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. Membership has not been that low since the big U.S. economic stall that occurred immediately after World War II.
What is wrong?
What is wrong with the UAW? Some labor experts say it may not be a problem with the union, but a sign of a changing world around the union.
In the past two decades, five major trends have reshaped the American industry in a way that is reducing union membership.
1. Cross-border production. During the 1990s, the U.S. sales boom was fed by new assembly plants in Canada and Mexico. The North American industry barely distinguishes between vehicles made in the United States and those made in Canada or Mexico. But vehicles built outside of the United States represent non-UAW jobs. Last year, Canadian auto factories made 2.9 million passenger vehicles - more than twice the number built there 25 years earlier. And while most of Canada's auto plants are unionized, they reflect Canadian Auto Workers' membership, not the UAW.
The UAW has criticized automakers and suppliers for building plants in Mexico, and opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement for that reason. Last year, Mexican factories shipped more than 1 million vehicles into the U.S. market. They were built by non-UAW workers.
2. GM's eroding market share. As General Motors goes, so goes the union. In the past 20 years, the automaker's dominance in the U.S. market has slipped, leaving fewer GM factories and workers. In 1980, General Motors commanded a 46.4 percent market share in the United States. Last year, it dropped to 28.3 percent. Even though it has opened or expanded other assembly plants as it delivered new products, the net change has meant lost UAW membership.
3. The transplant wave. Though the union has locals at some transplant assemby plants, many others have no UAW presence. When Honda Motor Co. opened its first assembly operation in 1982 in Ohio, the UAW envisioned a small but serious organizing effort. Nineteen years later, the UAW still has not organized Honda's sprawling U.S. work force. And it is no longer trying. Non-Big 3 automakers delivered more than 2 million cars and trucks from nonunion factories in the United States last year. That does not include engines, transmissions and a huge inventory list of components and materials.
The 35,000 auto plant jobs are only part of the altered U.S. landscape. There are hundreds of Japanese- and European-owned parts factories in the United States that have no unions.
4. New efficiency. A push for leaner manufacturing has made UAW plants more productive and more automated. An auto plant that required 4,000 workers in the 1970s today can build the same number of vehicles with 2,500 to 3,000 employees. In 1979, it took 4.71 Ford Motor Co. workers to build one vehicle in the United States, according to Harbour and Associates Inc., a Detroit firm that chronicles the industry's productivity. Twenty years later, Ford had reduced that to 2.97 workers per vehicle. While that is good news for Ford, it is not so great for the union.
5. Labor outsourcing. In their effort to bring down costs, automakers have asked suppliers to assemble more components. After all, automakers had no reasons for wanting to assemble chassis parts, stitch seats or thread wiring harnesses. The shift hurts the UAW because many U.S. suppliers are nonunion. And many that are mostly represented by the UAW have individual nonunion plants.
Consider the biggest U.S. supplier, Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. Until the late 1990s, Delphi and its $25 billion-a-year parts empire was an operating unit of GM. Now a spinoff, its U.S. factories remain solidly represented by the UAW. But the company's global reach means it can easily supply parts from non-UAW plants in Mexico, South America, Europe or Asia. In Mexico alone, Delphi employs 70,000 workers. That is 2,000 more than in the United States.
'These issues would be a recipe for disaster - but only if the union failed to respond to them,' says American labor historian Steve Babson at Wayne State University in Detroit. 'Clearly, the trends are a threat to the UAW. But I believe they are responding and changing.'
One way the union is changing is its approach to organizing. The union is looking at specific companies and focusing on various plants in a region. The union also is seeking more organizing strength by calling on union members to take a leave of absence, vacation time or weekend free time to help recruit workers. This strategy could produce hundreds of new organizers to recruit workers at non-union companies.
There is no guarantee it will work. Organizers must convince workers that being a union member is an advantage. Organizers have failed repeatedly to create interest among the work forces of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and other areas where the non-Big 3 auto industry exists.
The union has made three unsuccessful passes at Nissan Motor Co.'s plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, since 1988.
For the past two years, organizers - including King himself - have made little progress at DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. subsidiary in Vance, Alabama. And that is despite Mercedes' new shared link with the UAW-friendly Chrysler group.
The core problem is this: Workers of the non-Big 3 industry think the union has nothing to offer. Wages and benefits at Toyota and Honda are only marginally different from those of UAW members. Plus, there are no union dues, Babson notes.
The union's lure of job security is of little importance at Japanese-owned companies that avoid layoffs. And the UAW's claim that it resolves workplace problems, protects workers from unsafe conditions and gives workers a voice in plant operations is of little consequence to non-Big 3 workers. That is because they are accustomed to participating in programs to fix problems and create innovations.
In recent years, the UAW has begun to maintain its membership by organizing office workers, health care workers and other non-automotive employees. But even that has been difficult.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers have scrapped plans to merge with the UAW. And the United Steelworkers of America continues merger talks - six years after the unions first floated the possibility.
E-mail writer Lindsay Chappell at [email protected]