UAW membership nudges upward for 3rd straight year

UAW membership nudges upward for 3rd straight year
Gabe Nelson
Automotive News | March 28, 2013 – 6:29 pm EST
UPDATED: 3/28/13 7:29 pm ET – details added

The UAW’s membership rolls grew slightly in 2012 as the auto industry rebounded, even though the union did not achieve its longstanding goal of organizing a major auto factory in the South.

The UAW had 382,513 members at the end of 2012, according to the union’s annual regulatory filing Thursday with the U.S. Labor Department. That is up 0.4 percent over 2011, but still low by historic standards for a union that had 701,818 members as recently as 2001 and more than 1.5 million members at its peak in 1979.

It is the third consecutive year the union’s membership ranks have increased.

The tally does not include workers who have been organized but have not yet finished bargaining their first contract, or those who have not yet signed membership cards, the UAW said.

With those members included, the number of workers would be above 400,000.

The Detroit 3, which account for the bulk of the union’s membership, have rehired and added factory workers in recent years as industry sales and output have rebounded from the 2008-09 downturn.

“UAW membership continues on a steady path of recovery, even in the face of concerted attacks on workers and collective bargaining,” UAW President Bob King said in a statement.

Organizing woes

The union’s membership has dwindled and remained low in recent years as the auto industry — notably the Detroit 3 and suppliers — has contracted. Meanwhile, the UAW has struggled to organize automotive plants run by Asian and European automakers. Many of these plants are in the South, where workers are typically wary of labor unions.

King, who has said the union must recruit more members to ensure its long-term survival, has tried using new tactics — such as softening some of its stances on international trade — in an effort to break the impasse.

“Our commitment to our core values has not changed,” he said during a 2010 speech that outlined his goals for a new model of organized labor. “Our strategies to achieve these core values must change to be effective in the new world we live in.”

This year the union has focused on organizing efforts at Nissan Motor Co.’s U.S. plants, including a Canton, Miss., assembly plant.

Last month, union representatives met with workers from Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tenn., signaling another attempt to organize the plant, The Tennessean reported.

In 1989 and 2001 workers at the Smyrna plant conducted a vote on whether to join the UAW and rejected the union by a 2-to-1 margin.

King: “UAW membership continues on a steady path of recovery, even in the face of concerted attacks on workers and collective bargaining.”

Volkswagen plant

Despite its struggles to organize assembly plants in the South, the UAW may be on the verge of a breakthrough.

Volkswagen AG is consulting with the union about setting up a German-style labor council at VW’s assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., the company’s human resources boss, Horst Neumann, recently told reporters in Wolfsburg, Germany.

In a statement on Neumann’s remarks, which were first reported by Automotive News, King said the works council model may fit into the UAW’s vision for the organized labor movement.

“The UAW is very interested in the specific model that VW wants to present in the months ahead, and we are looking forward to open, fair and respectful dialogue,” he said in the statement.

There is no guarantee, however, that participating in a works council would end up advancing the UAW’s membership rolls.

Under the model common in Germany, workers could elect to be represented by the UAW; they could also elect a different union or opt to represent themselves without aid from a national union.

“The representatives of the employees will be determined by the employees,” Volkswagen of America CEO Jonathan Browning told reporters Wednesday at the New York auto show. “That does not necessarily mean the UAW.”

However, the company concedes that U.S. law would require Volkswagen’s workers to have the choice of joining at least one union. And so far, VW has not held discussions with any other union, Neumann said.

The UAW also has historic ties with VW. The union used to bargain for workers at the German automaker’s assembly plant in Westmoreland, Penn., which built vehicles such as the Golf, Rabbit, GTI and Jetta before it closed in 1988.

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