Just like any business in a service industry, the UAW needs more customers. For a union, that means more members.
The UAW's dues-paying membership has eroded steadily from about 1.5 million in pre-recession 1979 to more than a half-million today. That's a loss of about a million members -- nearly two-thirds of its customer base -- in 27 years.
And buyouts and layoffs mean the total could fall further by year end, even if the union recruits more members from outside the industry.
This is not a new problem.
Martin Gerber -- one of Walter Reuther's early comrades -- saw it coming nearly a quarter century ago.
Gerber, who died last year, joined the union in 1937. He was on the UAW's executive board for 39 years and retired in 1983 as a UAW vice president and director of the union's organizing department. Back then, 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.
Since then, the UAW's biggest failure 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 that is losing customers in a service industry, 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]