Like Detroit, the UAW Needs to Reinvent Itself

One of my grandfathers was a ‘union man.’ But it didn’t last.

One of my grandfathers was a “union man.” But it didn’t last. After growing up on a family farm in Ohio and trying his hand at barnstorming in the early ’30s, he eventually found himself in industrial Detroit. Work was plentiful at the time, and he was able to support a young family. Having reached an education level of somewhere between the eighth and 12th grades, he worked in factories, as that’s where his opportunity lied.

Most of his work was for an automotive supplier, and he specialized in welding gas tanks among other things. He was also the shop’s go-to fix-it-guy. If a piece of machinery went down, and after some workers couldn’t get it to run properly, they would invariably go hat-in-hand to my grandpa, who would figure out how to get things running again.

So where am I going with this? Well, the owner of the parts factory appreciated the wherewithal of my grandpa. If he saved him thousands of dollars from having to replace equipment and lost productivity from downtime, he would give my grandfather a raise of five cents here and 10 cents there. One day, the union found out he was getting paid more than other equally ranked workers. So what did the union do? Rather than trying to get raises for comparable workers, they got my grandpa’s pay knocked down to where it should have been.

I vividly recall him telling me this story in my youth and with his succinct summation being: “Ever since then, I hated the union.” After listening to Bob King’s UAW farewell speech at the Constitutional Convention earlier this month, it’s funny how the union mentality seems to be the same after all these years.

King’s message focused on the need to unionize the domestic plants of foreign manufacturers as well as expand the UAW’s reach globally. But a hard blow was dealt to the UAW after the unsuccessful unionization effort at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn. plant earlier this year. It came on the heels of the defeat handed to King in 2012 for the failed Proposal 2 ballot issue, which directly led to Michigan passing “Right to Work” legislation in December of that year.

The comment that really had me shaking my head is when King told the delegates that if the UAW organized all of the major auto companies — including foreign-owned OEMs — no company would be at a disadvantage.

Does King even realize what he said? He is in effect admitting that the UAW is an impediment for the domestic automakers, and it makes them uncompetitive? Therefore, according to King, the only way to “level the playing field” is to organize all the auto plants in America so Ford, GM, and Fiat/Chrysler cannot use that “competitive disadvantage” to bargain against the UAW. What am I missing here?

The UAW is at a crossroads whether they realize it or not. This month they voted to increase dues 25 percent, the first increase since 1967. UAW dues are based on one’s hourly wage, and the increase went from two hours per month to 2.5 hours per month. So as wages increased with inflation so did the UAW’s funding. What’s more, the union’s strike fund has “dwindled” to $630 million, down 32 percent from its peak in 2006 of $930 million.

As America and Detroit embraced and ran with the Industrial Revolution, federal entities such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn’t exist and industrial working conditions were dangerous and not centric to employee safety. Organized labor, post 1930, provided immense value to the American worker not only with increased safety and skills, but the contribution to personal wealth and the formation of the middle class. However, modern-day efforts by the UAW leadership are focused almost solely on unionizing more members to generate more money for the UAW. In fact, during King’s farewell speech, not once did I hear him reference worker safety or training standards. It seems safety is no longer a core purpose of the union.

UAW membership has dwindled to less than 400,000 members from a peak of 1.5 million in 1979. A precipitous drop that nearly mirrors the population decline of Detroit, except the UAW membership drop is more severe and occurred more rapidly. Detroit is in the midst of reinventing itself and the new leadership of the UAW must do the same — by becoming a true partner with business instead of being an “ongoing competitive disadvantage” with the companies they supply labor for.

Justin Winkelman is a business consultant in the areas of strategic planning, business operations, and social media marketing and implementation.