Just like any business in a service industry, the UAW needs more customers. For a union, that means more members.
So it really isn't surprising that the union amended its constitution to allow money from its $925 million strike fund to be used to beef up organizing efforts.
The UAW's dues-paying membership has eroded steadily from about 1.5 million in pre-recession 1979 to just over a half-million today. That's a loss of a million members -- two-thirds of its customer base -- in 27 years.
And the total could fall through the 500,000-member floor by year end unless the union can score some major organizing successes, which isn't likely, even with a financial shot in the arm.
This is not a new problem.
At the union's constitutional convention in Las Vegas this week, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger talked about changes in the industry that have raised serious issues for the union, such as the need to help the traditional Big 3 reduce some legacy costs.
Yes, the world has changed. But the change has been evolutionary, not revolutionary. The challenges facing Gettelfinger and the UAW began long ago. It's just that recently they've accelerated.
Martin Gerber -- one of Walter Reuther's early comrades -- saw it coming nearly a quarter century ago.
Gerber joined the union in 1937 and was on the UAW's executive board for 39 years. Just before he retired in 1983, Gerber told Automotive News that the biggest threat to the UAW was the ferocious resistance of Japanese automakers to the union's organizing drives. The second biggest challenge was the threat of outsourcing production to lower-cost countries.
He sure called it.
Gerber, who died last year, had been a UAW vice president and director of the union's organizing department.
The uncompetitive health care and pension costs carried by GM, Ford and the Chrysler group are not the UAW's fault. The union did what its customers demanded; the automakers acquiesced because they thought they could pass on the costs to consumers.
Nor is the loss of members something the union could have controlled as buyouts, early retirements, plant closings and productivity increases have eroded the number of hourly workers needed by the traditional Big 3 and their suppliers.
Failure to organize
The biggest failure of the UAW has been its inability to organize the factories run by Japanese automakers as their share of U.S. production and sales has grown. In business terms, the UAW has lost market share among the workers who build cars and trucks.
Why don't workers want to join the UAW?
Is it because workers don't think they need a union because their benefits -- except for retirement -- are pretty close?
Is it because the Japanese fight dirty, as Gerber charged in 1983?
Is it because the union has a blue-state political orientation that seems out of sync in the red states where so many factories are built?
Like any business in a service industry that is losing customers, the UAW needs to reassess the market. Then it must update its mission statement, re-engineer its business model and find ways to add value for members.
The alternative could be fatal.
You may e-mail Edward Lapham at [email protected]