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New groups diversify UAW’s base

June 16, 2010

New groups diversify UAW’s base

Union sees change as casino, health care and others join ranks

The Detroit News

Detroit — The United Auto Workers is steeped in the history of making cars and trucks, but the union’s contingent of non-automotive members is making its presence felt this week at the UAW’s 35th constitutional convention.

The union estimates at least 123,000 of its 355,191 active members — or about 35 percent — work in nonautomotive fields, based on figures posted on the UAW’s website.

More than a quarter are white-collar or professional and technical workers, according to a report distributed to convention delegates at Cobo Center.

That diversity is reflected on the convention floor in groups of casino and health care workers, many of them women, and young graduate students mixing with the UAW’s more traditional ranks of largely middle-aged men.

"We are the future," says Alan Kilar, who represents Local 6000 in Lansing and is one of 1,200 convention delegates from UAW locals across the country.

Local 6000, the largest UAW local in the nation, represents 13,000 state of Michigan workers.

Kilar’s sentiments were echoed by Mary Johnson, president of Local 2121, the UAW’s newest local, which represents 2,500 Foxwoods Resort workers at two casinos in Connecticut.

"I feel like we are on the ground floor of this national campaign, and I really look forward to seeing more casino workers in the UAW," said Johnson, a dealer in Ledyard, Conn. Foxwoods, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, is the country’s largest casino.

"The UAW actually has a lot of expertise in representing casino workers with MGM, the Motor City Casino and Greektown" casinos in Detroit, Johnson said. "In our field, anyway, the UAW is seen as a growth union."

Broadening the union’s base is an idea long embraced by UAW Vice President Bob King, head of the union’s Ford Motor Co. bargaining unit.

King is expected to be elected president of the UAW today, replacing Ron Gettelfinger, who is retiring. King has recruited 66,000 members to the UAW amid the overall decline. Many of the recruits are from casino gaming and state government.

King also has negotiated agreements with many auto suppliers, helping the UAW organize more than 36,000 workers.

"Bob King understands the UAW needs to diversify in who they represent, and he has shown much success with that kind of coalition building," said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank in Washington.

The UAW has lost more than 1.1 million members since the union’s ranks peaked in 1979. Last year alone, the union lost about 76,000 members as Detroit’s Big Three automakers restructured. The UAW also has had little success organizing workers at the U.S. factories of foreign automakers.

"It is widely understood within the UAW leadership that the future of the union is well beyond auto workers," said Harley Shaiken, a University of California, Berkeley professor who closely follows the Detroit-based union.

"The diversity of the union, in terms of who it organizes, is a strength. It gives them links to a broader economy and a very diverse set of ideas and experience. In a way, the union has changed with the economy."

But other analysts say diversity can complicate the internal politics of the union.

"It provides an opportunity for growth for the union and cushions it against lean times, but it also creates new problems," Gary Chaison, a professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

The priorities of newer members may not be the same as existing ones, Chaison said. Globalization, for example, is a major issue for auto workers, but not for public employees.

There are outside considerations as well.

"The UAW is beginning to bump into other unions when they organize," Chaison said.

One of those would be the growing 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Another is the Service Employees International Union, the largest health care union in the country, which bills itself as America’s fastest-growing labor organization. The UAW represents about 2,700 workers of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Some nonautomotive members say it can be frustrating that auto workers dominate the union, but they acknowledge that many of their overall goals are similar to those of auto workers.

"What’s universal is workplace safety and protecting our wages, benefits and jobs from attacks," said Local 6000 delegate Diane Doubrava, who works with the Michigan State Police in Lansing.

"Right now a lot of our members are doing the jobs of two, three people because of cutbacks. I know that is an issue many workers face. It’s why the UAW can grow in other areas."

At least four policy resolutions submitted by UAW locals for discussion at the convention aim to bolster efforts to recruit potential members beyond autos to help the union grow.

According to the UAW website, the union’s non-automotive membership includes:


  • More than 50,000 in the public sector.



  • More than 40,000 in higher education.



  • About 22,000 members in agricultural and construction equipment.



  • Roughly11,300 members in casino gaming.

 "> Detroit News Staff Writer Bryce Hoffman contributed.

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