Final Inspection
Why Can’t UAW Sell Itself?

Why Can’t UAW Sell Itself?

The UAW’s failure to organize hourly Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga, TN, is a humiliating and strategic failure.

In 30 years of trying, the UAW has been unable to organize any of the 21 manufacturing plants run by eight foreign automakers in 11 different states, except for those that once were joint ventures with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

In the latest VW vote, 53% of the workers rejected the union. Clearly it no longer knows how to connect with most working-class people.

Instead, the UAW blames “outsiders” for interfering with its organizing attempt, ignoring the fact the union itself is perceived as an outsider, with its headquarters more than 600 miles (966 km) away and well above the Mason-Dixon Line. And therein lies the root cause of why the union’s membership continues to shrink.

The UAW simply does not know how to sell itself anymore. It’s constantly trying to revive the spirit of the 1936 Flint sitdown strike that launched it into national prominence. For the UAW, organizing workers is seen as another battle in the struggle of class warfare. It is a belligerent and confrontational spirit that was appropriate for its time, but has little relevance for most workers today.

In a few months, the UAW will elect a new president. Labor experts are certain it will be Dennis Williams, the current Secretary-Treasurer. Williams already is making speeches about how angry and outraged he is, and while that kind of rhetoric can bring rousing cheers inside a union hall, it generally turns off undecided folks wondering if they want to invite a union into their workplace.

Instead of falling back on its timeworn tactics, the union needs to take a fresh approach. I think it ought to take some marketing classes. I’m not joking. It needs to learn how to sell the sizzle, like its success in obtaining profit-sharing checks, such as the $8,800 the workers at Ford are getting this year. That is a tangible, believable benefit only the union could deliver.

The UAW has a big perception problem it needs to overcome. GM, Ford and Chrysler faced the same problem, but they’ve largely turned it around. The “Detroit Three” did it with world-class products that have been well marketed. Chrysler’s Olivier Francois developed media campaigns that worked brilliantly at changing public perception in a relatively short amount of time. Who ever thought “Imported From Detroit” would resonate in California? Maybe the UAW should hire Francois. If he can turn the old Chrysler 200 into an aspirational vehicle, I’m sure he can sell the UAW to factory workers.

It wouldn’t take much. The union actually came awfully close to winning in Chattanooga. If it had been able to persuade 44 of those workers to vote yes instead of no, the plant would be unionized today. Only 44! Obviously the union tapped into a desire on the part of the VW workers to have more say in their everyday workday. Indeed, prior to the vote, more than half the workforce signed cards indicating they would welcome the union. But when it came to the point of sale, the UAW couldn’t close the deal.

Will the union change its tactics? I doubt it. It’s much easier to blame others for your failure than it is to admit it was your own fault. And it’s even more difficult to walk away from the history and legacy that once made you great.

In the business world, when your sales strategy fails, you know it’s time to develop a new approach. The companies that fail to do so are the ones that go out of business. And that is just as true for labor unions as it is for corporations.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of the “Autoline” PBS television show and “Autoline Daily,” the online video newscast.

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