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The future of the UAW

Jack Lessenberry

Today, auto workers at Ford will begin voting on a new three-year contract negotiated by the United Auto Workers union, a process that will take almost a week.

The settlement is exceptionally rich by contrast with the last couple of agreements, negotiated when the automakers were on the ropes or just barely recovering from the near-death experience that ended in bankruptcy for Chrysler and General Motors.

Ford workers are scheduled to get $10,000 in signing bonuses if they ratify this contract, which also includes raises and a path to complete parity for so-called Tier II workers, plus, for the first time, the same health care coverage for them.

That’s a richer settlement than was negotiated at either GM or Chrysler. It also includes a pledge to invest $700 million in Ford’s assembly plant in Wayne, a place, some feared might be closed. Nevertheless, some workers are against this contract.

They aren’t happy that Tier II wages aren’t being brought up fast enough. Both sides have been arguing over ratification on social media. And whatever happens, this has been an unexpectedly difficult round of negotiations for the union and new UAW leader Dennis Williams.

Chrysler workers angrily rejected the first contract their leaders negotiated, sending an embarrassed union back to the bargaining table. The new contract at General Motors is still on hold, after skilled trades workers rejected it. The union is trying to determine whether they have to return to the bargaining table there as well.

Eventually, all these wrinkles are likely to be smoothed out, and UAW workers will have a better contract that will pump more money into their pockets and the economy. But what’s happened this year should serve to remind us that the world has changed.

Forty years ago, all vehicles manufactured in this country were made in plants owned by what we then still called the Big Three. The workers were all United Auto Workers union members, and there were a lot more of them.

Today, 46% of all vehicles made in America are made by what we used to call foreign automakers, by non-UAW members. The Detroit three are making more and more cars in low-wage Mexico. The union has only a quarter of the membership it did at its peak, and fewer than half of those are traditional auto workers.

And Michigan has become a “right-to-work” state, meaning that for the first time, individual auto workers can quit the union and not pay dues.

What intrigues me is what happens beyond this set of contracts. In many ways, the challenges the UAW now faces may be more difficult than any Walter Reuther and his comrades faced 80 years ago when their union was born.

They were beaten and bloodied and shot. They had to overcome stool pigeons, Communists and company spies, but they did all that, and within six short years won recognition by all three major automakers. But now they face challenges Reuther never imagined.

Unions aren’t hugely popular these days. But they are still, as one bumper sticker says, the people who brought the working class the weekend.

Not to mention vacations, health care benefits and job security. I think if we forget that, the world might end up being a much harsher place.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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