July 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

UAW's hold on employees is weak

The UAW, with the controversial Bob King having retired, is at a turning point in its history. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

When a major labor union finds itself being picketed by its own members, you know it has big problems.

That’s exactly what happened to the United Auto Workers last month at their offices in Detroit. Workers gathered at the front gates, marching back and forth and holding signs bearing such slogans as “Stand Up for the Rank and File” and “Without Workers the Unions Will Perish.” They had serious questions for the union leadership, and eventually drew out UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles, who seemed to become agitated as he engaged with both the discontented members of his own union and journalist Charlie LeDuff, who was covering the protest for the local Fox station.

The disgruntled UAW members’ concerns stemmed from their union’s actions in the recent case involving a Volkswagen manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Despite significant lobbying efforts by the UAW, who hoped to showcase this as a successful organization effort at a southern, foreign-owned facility, the Volkswagen workers voted against unionization in February.

The UAW refused to accept defeat, however, and mounted a challenge to the vote before the National Labor Relations Board. The union’s then-president, Bob King, complained of “extraordinary interference” by Tennessee politicians and outside groups in the election. The UAW bosses’ appeal kept the Volkswagen workers in limbo — and their own names in the news — for months, until they abruptly dropped their claim in April a mere hour before the hearing was due to begin. The VW workers’ vote against unionization was certified, life and work at the plant went on, but the UAW bosses came away empty-handed.

Back in Detroit, the UAW workers and retirees picketing their headquarters wondered: What was the point of it all? LeDuff reported that the union had increased their dues 25 percent to offset the millions of dollars they spent on adventures, starting with Chattanooga. These members were not pleased, especially since union leadership doesn’t seem to be hurting for money themselves. There were even some hints that their fellow auto industry workers who rejected unionization may have had the right idea.

“The union has lost its ability to convince people that they’re the thing that they need,” one protester told LeDuff. “When we look at what happened in Chattanooga, Tenn., the people there understood that the union couldn’t bring nothing to them they didn’t already have.”

When newly elected UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles jumped into the fray, he bristled at the suggestion that UAW workers were considering leaving the union — a prospect that’s had big labor quaking in Michigan ever since the state’s right-to-work law took effect in 2013.

That differs markedly from the account given to LeDuff by another voice from the picket line: “At least a thousand of us [are] ready to walk,” this man said, appearing on camera with both his face obscured and his voice digitally distorted, most likely out of fear of union repercussions. It’s a sad state of affairs when Americans can’t exercise their right to free speech because of fear of reprisals at work.

Union membership has been on the decline for decades, hovering barely over 11 percent of all American workers in 2013. The UAW is no exception to this trend. Maybe that’s why big labor bosses spend their members’ dues money on misguided crusades such as the forced unionization debacle in Chattanooga, in the vain hope that it may pay off in the end, or at least stem the tide of irrelevance that threatens to engulf their organization.

The UAW headquarters building in front of whose gates this protest was held is named — ironically, given these events — Solidarity House. One of the protest signs read: “Show Us What Solidarity Looks Like!” If UAW bosses continue to neglect solidarity and dismiss the concerns of its members, the alternatives now available to workers under Michigan’s right-to-work law will only look better and better. The foundations of solidarity in the once-impregnable union fortress of Detroit might already be beginning to crumble.

Fred Wszolek is a spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute.