If the UAW doesn’t change, it’s toast
The UAW is caught in a downward spiral from which it cannot escape. It loses members who work in car factories. And it’s going to lose a lot more unless it makes meaningful changes to the way it tries to organize factories, the high levels of unscheduled absenteeism it tolerates, and the uncompetitive work rules it negotiated.
In business terms, the UAW is rapidly losing market share. Its membership peaked about 40 years ago, when it had about 1.3 million members. Today, that number stands at 372,000, and most of those members don’t even work in the automotive industry.
So what happened to all those UAW automotive jobs? They simply went to non-union automakers. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Subaru, BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Volvo, Hyundai and Kia have built manufacturing facilities in the United States. Together they employ around 110,000 workers. And none of these workers are represented by the UAW.
I will note that none of these factories are in Michigan. That’s because Michigan is home to the UAW and none of the foreign automakers want to deal with the union. Sad to say, the UAW is preventing the state of Michigan from attracting high-paying manufacturing jobs.
Then you have EV startups, like Tesla, Rivian, Lucid, and soon Vietnam’s Vinfast, which is building an assembly and battery plant in North Carolina. Once they get all their factories up and running, they will employ another 38,000 workers, none of whom will be represented by the UAW.
Put it all together — foreign transplants plus EV startups — and they’ll employ over 166,000 blue-collar workers in the United States. 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 like the union didn’t try to organize non-Detroit Three factories. But he was refused each time. And it wasn’t the companies that refused them, it was the workers in those factories. They just didn’t see what was in it for them to join the UAW.
The union blames the anti-union efforts of the companies. But after 40 years of failure, I would say the problem is the union’s organizing strategy. The UAW is always trying to turn its organizing efforts into a stand for social justice. And I’m all for social justice, but it didn’t work.
At the Nissan plant in Canton, MS, for example, the union has tried to focus the organizing effort on racial injustice. Eighty percent of the workers in this factory are black. The union even brought in big names like Senator Bernie Sanders and actor Danny Glover along with a group of local Baptist preachers to tell workers to take a stand for racial justice and vote for the UAW. Instead, these workers rejected the union by more than 2 to 1.
What the UAW should do is show them the money! UAW workers make more money and enjoy better benefits. And they get profit sharing. At Stellantis, every UAW worker received a check for $14,000 last year. This is how you show people what’s in it for them. Show them the money!
Here’s how bad it got for the union. Elon Musk recently “invited” the UAW to organize workers at its factories. But it was not an invitation. Elon laughed at them. He challenges the UAW to try to organize its workers because he knows they will reject the union. He rubs it on their face.
There are a number of reasons why foreign automakers and electric vehicle startups don’t want the UAW.
Unscheduled absenteeism is a big problem at UAW factories. Let me explain. Planned absenteeism is when you have planned in advance not to come to work because you have a doctor’s appointment, or a family situation, or whatever. The company can provide for this. Unscheduled absenteeism is when someone just goes AWOL – absent without permission.
One of GM’s top negotiators told me that unscheduled absenteeism could be as high as 12% at some GM plants. This means that one in ten people do not show up every day. And so GM has to hire more people to cover them, driving up labor costs.
When I asked the folks at Honda’s manufacturing complex in Marysville, OH about unscheduled absenteeism, they looked at me quizzically. “What do you mean by ‘unscheduled absenteeism?’ they asked. I told them, “You know when someone goes AWOL.” They were horrified. “You can’t do that here. You’re going to get fired,” they told me.
But the UAW doesn’t want to talk about absenteeism. He denies that it is even a problem.
Worse still, the union stands for total bullshit who should be fired. About ten years ago, a local Detroit television reporter caught nine workers at the Chrysler plant on Jefferson Avenue in a park on their lunch break pounding beers and smoking doobs. They did it every day. When he arrived with his cameraman, they jumped into their cars and scattered – scattered to the factory.
Because he made the evening news, Chrysler immediately fired those morons. 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 had a legal responsibility to fight for the jobs of all workers.
I don’t buy it. I can’t see the need to fight for workers who are likely to ruin the quality of the vehicles they build and 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 former presidents and over a dozen union leaders in federal prison for stealing millions from the union.
Another problem concerns work rules. “Is there a loose bolt on this machine? If you’re an assembly line worker, better not touch it. You better call a millwright to bring a wrench and tighten it. “Does this machine need to be plugged in?” Don’t you dare touch it. “You need to call an electrician.”
In some places it was so ridiculous that if there was a piece of wood on the floor of a packing crate, you had to call a carpenter to pick it up.
These are all skilled jobs and it takes forever to get UAW skilled worker certification. It takes four years to get your journeyman card as an electrician, or millwright, or pipe fitter, or whatever. Four years for a skill.
Compare that to Honda. They train their people in eight months. And they don’t come out of this program with just one skill. They are trained in multiple disciplines so that they can handle multiple issues such as troubleshooting problems on the line, repairing machines, reprogramming robots, whatever it takes. Honda doesn’t even call them skilled tradespeople. They call them maintenance workers. And it works very well. Honda has very high levels of availability and superb levels of quality and safety.
So why am I reporting all this? This is not to dump UAW members. I have the greatest respect for the vast majority of unionized workers. And by vast majority, I mean more than 95%. These are the men and women who come to work every day and honestly dedicate a day’s work. They are smart. They are well trained. They are proud of their work.
I hope the new UAW constitution will change things. This is something that the federal government imposed on the union because of its corruption scandal. From now on, workers will directly elect their union leaders, instead of voting for a list of representatives who will then elect the leader. I hope direct elections will lead to the kind of changes I’m talking about.
And make no mistake, thousands of UAW jobs are at risk. It’s not just transplants, it’s not just EV startups. It’s the transition to electric cars that will likely eliminate one in four unionized jobs, or about 40,000 UAW jobs.
The UAW will continue to lose market share unless it can organize other automakers. But he has no chance of doing so unless he tackles absenteeism, restrictive work rules and bad workers and managers who should be fired.
And that’s why I say if the UAW doesn’t change, it’s screwed.