Autoworkers Gave up Much Without a Fight

Never have so many American, unionized autoworkers given up so much with so little of a fight.

During contract negotiations where the United Auto Workers faced declining wages for new members and the threat of plant closings, brief, token strikes were held at both General Motors and Chrysler before workers agreed to the terms of new contracts.

The union at Ford, the most economically broken of the Big Three, didn't even bother with a strike, before the UAW agreed to a tentative agreement. (The pact must now be ratified by Ford's local unions.)

The contracts are reportedly very similar for all the nearly 540,000 members of the UAW. Besides wage reductions and the loss of jobs, all three auto giants have also passed along their commitment to provide retiree health benefits to the union leadership. Trusts will be created to handle the benefits liabilities, and it's too early to tell if the UAW will do a better job managing those benefits.

What is clear is that a once-dominant union is crumbling under the pressure of real and perceived challenges.

Management at the automakers has gotten their lunches eaten by foreign car companies who came up with automobiles American consumers would rather buy.

Auto companies scrambled to move production to third world nations and southern, less union friendly U.S. states, replacing more costly Midwestern and northeastern assembly workers.

And more conciliatory leaders such as the present UAW chief Ron Gettelfinger have since replaced the take-no-prisoners type union bosses of days gone by, like the late Stephen Yokich.

"I don't think Yokich could have done what Gettelfinger did," auto analysts David Cole with the Center for Automotive Research told me recently. "He didn't have the personality or relationships to allow him to do this. He was more confrontational."

The goings on in today's labor-management power struggle is like a wacky dream you wake up from and realize it's not a dream at all.

Just days after Chrysler workers narrowly approved the new contract, the company announced it was cutting up to 12,000 jobs across the country.

The news was a slap in the face for the men and women on the assembly line, but they had little recourse.

Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli sees the concessions made by the union as "revolutionary" and analysts, of course, tout the cutbacks in jobs and wages and healthcare benefits, as a boon for the three automakers bottom lines. Cutting labor costs as all costs is the mantra among all three auto giant CEOs. (By the way, Nardelli was pushed out of Home Depot because the company faced financial problems, and he received a hefty $210 million gold parachute for his troubles.)

Did the union give up too much?

Cole doesn't think so. "If they didn't do what they did it would have killed at least one of the companies," he surmises. "The old way is not going to work anymore."

Alas, the UAW is no longer the face of the labor movement in the United States. It doesn't even rank among the top ten U.S. unions. (The largest union is the National Education Association with nearly 2.8 million members, and the Service Employees International Union is No.2 with about 1.6 million members, according to BNA, a specialized news and information publisher.)

Manufacturing is all but dying out in this country, as service sector jobs emerge as the new frontier for labor organizers. And most of those jobs pay nowhere near what manufacturing jobs have traditionally paid.

Lately I've heard quite a few people pontificate about how much money autoworkers make as a way to justify why their ranks have been decimated. I don't know about you guys, but $28 an hour is not a lot of money in this day and age, especially for a back-breaking, often monotonous job like that of an auto worker.

I asked Gary Chaison, professor of Industrial Relations at Clark University whether the decline of the UAW was a bad thing?

"What's bad, or really I should sad, about the UAW's declining influence is their ability to protect past negotiated standards, i.e., high wages, strong job security, great health care benefits and pensions, from the decline of the American auto makers. So I guess my point is that the decline of the autoworkers unions also signals the decline of auto production and good paying manufacturing jobs in America, and the full impact of globalization on American manufacturing."

Many people don't really care if the auto union fades to black. But most of us do care if our TV shows fade to black because Hollywood writers walk off the job.

I suppose if we could outsource the writing of "CSI" to a third world nation, no one would care about the writers' union either.


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