It wasn’t that long ago that the United Auto Workers was one of the nation’s most powerful labor unions. It wasn’t that long ago, either, that Detroit’s Big Three automakers were the biggest car companies in the world. It is not coincidental that the union is now a hollow facsimile of its former self and the Big Three exist mainly in the memory of older Baby Boomers.
During its golden years, the UAW manhandled management with strikes, occasional violence, industrial sabotage, wildcat work stoppages, and pressure by pro-union politicians. The UAW pushed wages and benefits so high — $75 per hour per employee — that it became impossible for U.S. automakers to produce vehicles at any where near the costs as their import rivals, which were paying an average of $55 per hour for non-union workers.
At the same time, job guarantees and other costly concessions to the union meant car company managers couldn’t cut costs to restore their competitiveness.
When domestic car sales plunged in the Great Recession of 2008, General Motors went bankrupt and became Government Motors, and Chrysler became a Fiat subsidiary. Only Ford remains of the original Big Three in anything resembling its former status.
As for the UAW, where in 1979 more than 1.2 million people had membership cards, today only 380,000 do, along with 600,000 retirees.
But a year ago, UAW leaders saw an opportunity with President Barack Obama in the White House to relaunch its previously futile efforts to organize workers at the highly profitable “transplant” factories built here in the U.S. by 11 foreign car companies.
When Volkswagen decided to build a new plant in Tennessee, UAW officials anticipated a transplant victory, with the aid of VW’s German union, IG Metal, which represents more than 100,000 VW workers. A Fremont plant formerly operated jointly by GM and Toyota had UAW representation, but the facility was closed last year.
But Reuters reported Friday that Bernd Osterloh, who represents workers on VW’s management board, said he won’t promote the UAW effort to organize the Tennessee facility. So much for international union solidarity.
It seems likely VW’s new Tennessee workforce will be non-union, like those at Honda, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes Benz, Subaru, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Mazda and Hyundai facilities across the South and Midwest.
The pitiful depths to which the UAW has fallen mirror the overall condition of unions in America, which now represent less than 7 percent of the private sector workforce.
Union membership is growing only in the public sector, but even there the gathering taxpayers’ revolt against excessive compensation for government employees promises rough times ahead. Big unions like the UAW look increasingly like unsustainable relics from the New Deal era.