As Buyouts Continue, UAW Struggles With Membership Decline

By Staff Report

Dec. 5, 2006

The recent news that 38,000 Ford Motor Co. employees agreed to take the company’s buyout offers might have been welcome news for the Dearborn, Michigan-based automobile manufacturer.

It wasn’t for the United Auto Workers, which has already seen its membership fall to 598,000 from 1.5 million 20 years ago.

Industry experts say the union may need to take some type of drastic action if it wants to continue to wield the clout that it once had.

“I woudn’t be surprised if the UAW decided to merge with another industrial union,” says Jim Hendricks, a founding partner in the Chicago office of law firm Fisher & Phillips. “The buyouts at General Motors and Ford severely reduce the number of active members paying dues at the union, and this in turn affects the union’s ability to organize.”

For employers in manufacturing, a UAW merger could result in a jump in organizing activity.

“We might be heading in the direction of having one big industrial union,” says Mark Neuberger, a partner in the Miami office of Buchanan Ingersoll. “This could result in more political clout for labor, especially if the Democrats retain control [of Congress] in 2008.”

Labor attorneys say that logical mergers for the UAW would be either with the United Steelworkers of America or the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Both the UAW and the machinists union have been trying to organize retail auto dealerships, so a merger among them might make sense, Hendricks says.

But the UAW has tried to merge with these unions before. Ten years ago, a merger between the autoworkers, steelworkers and machinists fell through because the three groups couldn’t see past their differences, says Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“There were too many differences in the way they selected officers and were organized,” he says.

But trying again might be the easiest option for growth the UAW has, Neuberger says. The only alternative it has would be to try to establish alliances internationally, particularly in China, where the auto industry is taking off.

“It would be easier for them to try a merger than set up a union in China,” he says.

Jessica Marquez

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