As The UAW Fights To Save Themselves They Are Also Fighting For Every Worker

December 23, 2010

(ChattahBox Op/Ed) – News of the Census the other day and ongoing loss of jobs made a connection for me as I was pondering the weight of what continues to plague so many homes across the United States of America.  As a country we have lost millions upon millions of living wage jobs in the last five years and there is seemingly no hard rebound to look forward to.  We will see in about a month job numbers that will plummet once again after Holiday seasonal hiring is corrected and all of those people will lose their temporary and mostly non living wage jobs.    And it got me to thinking about Unions, my friends, the same people and organizations that are responsible for so much of what we enjoy in the workplace today.  Unions, the much challenged and stressed leadership that are having to redefine their role and importance while in motion, not an easy task.Not one Union more epitomizes the challenges and changes to the workplace more than the United Auto Workers (UAW), and with a new leader in Bob King and a shrinking membership base they are perhaps poised to be the leader in shaping what Union will mean as we head into an uncertain organized future.

There are currently 355,191 UAW members and most of them are still within the automotive sector.  Membership peaked in 1979 at 1,530,000.  You don’t need a degree in economics or mathematics to understand the reality to understand the cold devastation that has decimated their membership numbers.   The UAW must change or die and I do not think I am being dramatic at all.  Now is the time but not by choice but by reality.

Bob King understands that they need to grow and under his leadership the UAW has proclaimed that 2011 will be their year to do just that and they will be targeting a segment of the country that is as un-Union friendly as Wal-Mart – the South.

Foreign automakers are expanding in the United States and have decided to build in Southern states that traditionally have Right To Work laws, making Union compatibility a moot point, but that will not deter Bob King and the UAW organizers in the least, nor should it.  Reminiscent of the movie Norma Rae, the struggle to grow is not only critical to the UAW’s viability but also to the symbolic idea of what Union is and what it means to the American worker.

The UAW will have their work cut out for them.  Their current membership is not totally enamored with them these days as outgoing UAW President Ron Gettelfinger cut labor deals that turned back the hands of time and made concession that severely cut Union wages and benefits, the crown jewel of Union membership.  Their membership even picketed their Union headquarters in downtown Detroit a few months back.

This is not an easy time for Unions and what the UAW accomplishes over the next year will define what Union means to the rest of the country.

I understand that the idea of the past just cannot be perfectly applied to the present.  The days of huge wages, awesome benefits and profit sharing are just not realistic in a working environment that is now at the mercy of the Board of Directors who has only survival and profitability on their minds.  With a depleting job base and technology changing the process of work, a new kind of thinking must be applied.  Decisions once easily made are now tediously thought out.  The word Union means what today?  How is it defined?  How will it be changed?  How can Unions survive?

In 2009 alone, the UAW lost 16.7% of their membership.  There are sure to be further loses in 2010 and until the leadership puts a plan into place to change that constant trend the future of the UAW and all Unions are in jeopardy.

I have faith in Bob King and the more I read about him and his team the more confident I am that they are poised to respond  and I believe they will find a new way of moving forward and growing their membership albeit under a different set of expectations.  The fight they fight isn’t just in organizing and viability for their membership but for the Union movement in general, to me that is clear.

We are at a critical crossroads in this country with respect to employment and Union protection.  The power shift back to the company is disturbing and could be a disaster if someone doesn’t step up and work cooperatively with corporate America.  There is a balance to be achieved and I will be watching with great interest to see just how Bob King and his staff move forward.

We all have a lot to gain and to lose in this upcoming effort to organize in the South.  In fact I believe that as this effort begins anew for the UAW that America should pay close attention to what happens this year because if the UAW doesn’t find a way to grow and redefine who they are and what they do we are all in deep, deep trouble.

Solidarity has never been more crucial than it is today.  Mark my words, if their effort fails the idea of a national workforce strike may be the only way to protect ourselves and if that happens there will be more to worry about than pension protection.

The UAW membership must understand the reality that the days of old are just that and they must come to understand that what was once demanded is no longer an option.  Wages and benefits and job growth are all tied in together as the longer the country is out of work the more willing people are to taking your job because they will work cheaper than you will. The bad blood that creates and is creating has the potential for real violence and we cannot allow that to happen.

Leadership is preparing to define who they are and the membership needs to understand that this fight must be fought with our minds, not out fists.  That is the only way we will survive.

Tony Trupiano is a former national syndicated progressive radio talk show host, author, and a former candidate for Congress. He is also a nationally recognized media trainer.  He can be reached at and can read his Blog at


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