DETROIT — The UAW's traditional tactics of walkouts, sit-ins and strikes can't help it fight the latest threats to its fading influence.
The union, already weakened by the proliferation of foreign auto plants in the South, low-wage competition in Mexico and decades of factory closures on its home turf, is now reeling from a haymaker delivered by its own leadership: a $4.5 million corruption scandal reigniting complaints that the UAW has gotten too cozy with company executives.
Some believe the malfeasance uncovered by federal authorities could deal a crippling blow to the union, devastating the broader American labor movement as well, following several failed attempts by the UAW to organize plants and with right-to-work laws now letting dissatisfied members in Michigan and other states opt out.
UAW dissidents see the situation — years of funneling money meant to train workers into the pockets of union and company officials instead — as an opportunity for profound change. They're urging rank-and-file members to "take back" the union from leaders they claim are overly willing to comply with employers' requests.
"We went away from being trade unionists to company unionists," said Marty Marcum, a 20-year General Motors-UAW member who is part of Local 440 at the automaker's Bedford Casting Operations in Indiana and is leading an effort to challenge the leadership-approved slate of candidates in this year's quadrennial election. "I find it to be the biggest cancer that is bringing our union down."
The UAW's leadership, on the other hand, contends that this is just another contentious period in the nearly 83-year-old union's history that it will get through.
"The UAW has weathered many storms over the years — been through bad economic times, long strikes, relentless and vicious organizing drives," President Dennis Williams said in December. "We have also at times withstood investigations that have tested our goodwill."
Art Wheaton, a labor expert with the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said he doesn't think the scandal will lead to the demise of the UAW. But Wheaton expects some restructuring and tightening of the joint training center operations at the center of the federal investigation. He also isn't counting out dissidents such as Marcum.
"In terms of having the rank and file not being happy and voting in a new slate with a new promise," said Wheaton, who used to lead joint training and educational courses for company and union officials with GM and Ford Motor Co., "I don't think you can discount that possibility."
Much of what happens next for the union depends on how much, if any, the training center scandal spreads before the UAW Constitutional Convention in June, when a new slate of leaders is to be elected. Williams, who has reached the union's mandatory retirement age of 65 for officers, is not up for re-election.
Marcum, 55, has organized a "reform caucus" of rank-and-file members who are trying to woo local union delegates through social media, phone calls and a May rally planned outside the UAW's Solidarity House headquarters in Detroit.
"At this point in time, this leadership is as vulnerable as it's ever going to get," Marcum said. "It's hit rock bottom, or I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing."