The UAW is caught in a downward spiral that it can’t pull out of. It’s losing members who work in auto plants. And it’s going to lose a lot more unless it makes significant changes to the way it tries to organize plants, to the high levels of unscheduled absenteeism it tolerates, and to the uncompetitive work rules it has bargained into place.
In business terms, the UAW is losing market share, fast. Its membership peaked about 40 years ago when it had about 1.3 million members. Today that stands at 372,000, and most of those members don’t even work in the auto industry.
So, what happened to all those UAW auto jobs? They just went to nonunion car companies. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Subaru, BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Volvo, Hyundai and Kia have built manufacturing facilities the U.S. Altogether they employ about 110,000 workers. And not one of those workers is represented by the UAW.
I’ll note that none of these plants are in Michigan. That’s because Michigan is home to the UAW and none of the foreign car companies wants to deal with the union. Sad to say, but the UAW is preventing the state of Michigan from attracting good-paying manufacturing jobs.
Then you’ve got the EV startups, like Tesla, Rivian, Lucid and soon Vinfast, from Vietnam, which is building an assembly and battery plant in North Carolina. Once they get all their plants up and running, they’re going to employ another 38,000 workers, and none of them will be represented by the UAW.
Put it all together – the foreign transplants plus the EV startups – and they will employ over 166,000 blue-collar workers in the U.S. That’s more than General Motors, Ford and Stellantis combined. And that’s what I mean when I say the union is losing market share.
It’s not as if the union hasn’t tried to organize plants not belonging to the Detroit Three. But it’s been turned down every single time. And it wasn’t the companies that turned them down, it was the workers at those plants. They just didn’t see what was in it for them to join the UAW.
The union blames anti-union efforts by the companies. But after 40 years of failing, I’d say the problem is with the union’s organizing strategy. The UAW always tries to turn its organizing efforts into a stand for social justice. And I’m all for social justice, but it hasn’t worked.
At Nissan’s plant in Canton, MS, for example, the union tried to make the organizing effort all about racial injustice. Eighty percent of the workers in that plant are Black. The union even brought in big names like Sen. Bernie Sanders and the actor Danny Glover as well as a bunch of local Baptist preachers to tell the workers to take a stand for racial justice and vote for the UAW. Instead, those workers rejected the union by more than 2 to 1.
What the UAW should be doing is showing them the money! UAW workers make more money, and they have better benefits. And they get profit sharing. At Stellantis each UAW worker got a check for $14,000 last year. That’s how you show people what’s in it for them. Show them the money!
Here’s how bad it’s become for the union. Elon Musk recently “invited” the UAW to organize the workers at his plants. But it wasn’t an invitation. Elon was taunting them. He’s daring the UAW to try to organize his workers because he knows they’ll reject the union. He’s rubbing it in their face.
There are a number of reasons why foreign automakers and EV startups don’t want the UAW.
Unscheduled absenteeism is a big problem at UAW plants. Let me explain. Scheduled absenteeism is when you’ve scheduled ahead of time that you’re not coming into work because you’ve got a doctor’s appointment, or a family situation, or whatever. The company can plan for that. Unscheduled absenteeism is when someone just goes AWOL – absent without leave.
One of GM’s top labor negotiators told me unscheduled absenteeism can run as high as 12% at some GM plants. That means every day, one out of ten people just doesn’t show up. And so, GM has to hire more people to cover for them, which drives up labor costs.
When I asked the people at Honda’s manufacturing complex in Marysville, OH, about unscheduled absenteeism, they looked at me quizzically. “What do you mean, ‘Unscheduled absenteeism?’” they asked. I told them, “You know, when someone goes AWOL.” They were horrified. “You can’t do that here. You’ll get fired,” they told me.
But the UAW doesn’t want to talk about absenteeism. It denies it’s even a problem.
Even worse, the union defends total screwups who should be fired. About a decade ago, a local television reporter in Detroit caught nine workers from Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue plant at a park on their lunch break pounding down beers and smoking doobs. They did it every day. When he showed up with his cameraman they jumped in their cars and scattered – scattered right back to the plant.
Because it made the nightly news, Chrysler immediately fired these knuckleheads. But the union fought to get them reinstated, and even though it took two years of arbitration, they all got their jobs back. The UAW told me it has a legal responsibility to fight for the jobs of all workers.
I don’t buy it. I can’t possibly see the need to fight for workers who are likely to ruin the quality of the vehicles they build and who pose a threat to the safety of their fellow line workers.
Turning a blind eye to people who should be fired is a big problem in the union. This is exactly how all the corruption started that now has two past presidents and over a dozen union officers in federal prison for stealing millions of dollars from the union.
Another problem is work rules. “Is there a loose bolt on that machine?” If you’re a line worker, you better not touch it. You better call a millwright to bring a wrench and tighten it up. “Does that machine need to be plugged in?” Don’t you dare touch it. “You need to call an electrician.”
In some places it got to be so ridiculous that if there was a piece of wood on the floor from a packing crate, you had to call a carpenter to come pick it up.
Those are all skilled-trade jobs and it takes forever to get certified as a skilled tradesman in the UAW. It takes four years to get your journeymen’s card as an electrician, or a millwright, or a pipefitter, or whatever. Four years for one skill.
Compare that to Honda. They train their people in eight months. And they don’t come out of that program with one skill. They’re trained in multiple disciplines so they can handle multiple problems like troubleshooting issues on the line, fixing machinery, reprogramming robots –whatever it takes. Honda doesn’t even call them skilled tradespeople. They call them maintenance workers. And it works just fine. Honda has very high levels of uptime and superb levels of quality and safety.
So why am I pointing all this out? It’s not to trash UAW members. I have the utmost respect for the vast majority of union workers. And by vast majority I mean over 95%. These are the men and women who come in to work every day and put in an honest day’s worth of labor. They’re intelligent. They’re well trained. They take pride in their work.
I’m hoping the new constitution at the UAW changes things. This is something the feds forced on the union because of its corruption scandal. Now, workers will directly elect their union leaders, instead of voting for a slate of representatives who then elect the leader. I’m hoping direct elections will lead to the kind of changes that I’m talking about.
And make no mistake, thousands of UAW jobs are under threat. It’s not just the transplants, it’s not just the EV startups. It’s the transition to electric cars thatwill probably eliminate one out of four union jobs, or about 40,000 UAW jobs.
The UAW will continue to lose market share unless it can organize other automakers. But it doesn’t stand a chance of doing that unless it addresses absenteeism, restrictive work rules, and bad workers and leaders who should be fired.
And that’s why I say that if the UAW doesn’t change, it’s toast.
John McElroy (pictured above, left) is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.