The End of the UAW?

November 21, 2005
Is there still room for the United Autoworkers Union?

Just writing that headline makes me wonder how many angry calls, letters and e-mails I will receive in the days to come. But even if the answer is, "yes," it's critical we ask that question. Actually, it's a question the UAW must ask of itself.

The union was born of confrontation. The sit-down strikes in Flint, the "Battle of the Overpass" at Ford's Rouge plant, these were the decisive moments that not only gave the union a seat at the bargaining table, but set the tone for talks to follow for decades to come. There's no question the UAW has won tremendous gains for its members in the auto industry: great wages, good retirement packages, a platinum health care package. But the cost of these deals simply won't be born by the customer anymore. It's no longer 1970, when the Big Three swallowed hard and simply raised sticker prices. Every time they do, more customers migrate over to the imports.

Okay, so here's the case one can make against the UAW: The fact that workers at the various "transplants" keep rejecting union organizing bids cannot and should not be ignored. No question, management at companies like Toyota and Honda have done their best to keep UAW drives at bay. But if the union had a positive story to sell, it's hard to imagine it would fail so utterly and completely. Meanwhile, the various restrictions on plant closings, the job banks, restrictive work rules, and so on, make it increasingly difficult for the Big Three to be competitive. In the long run, that simply results in still more lost sales. And as GM demonstated Monday, that ultimately means fewer plants and fewer jobs.

I find it hard to believe I'm actually making these points, having grown up in a decidedly union household. I'd prefer to remain pro-UAW. But it's becoming harder and harder to argue labor's case. Now let me be clear, as the blog item that follows makes clear, I think GM has a lot of 'splaining to do, too. In reality, it seems like virtually everyone in Detroit is part of the problem. And if you can't find a way to become part of the solution, maybe you don't belong.

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