UAW membership dropped by 35,000 in 2018

Keith Laing Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
UAW President Gary Jones fires up delegates as he starts the chant, 'We Are One,' during his keynote speech.

Washington — The United Auto Workers lost more than 35,000 members in 2018, a 9 percent decrease, according to documents filed Friday with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The union said in the filing it had 395,703 members last year, down from 430,871 it had in 2017. It marks the first time in nine years the union has shrunk since its ranks reached a low of 355,191 in 2009 during the Great Recession.

The fall in membership came even as 264,000 new manufacturing jobs were added in the U.S. in 2018. That was the most new workers in 30 years.

The UAW called the numbers in the annual filing "a snapshot in time" and attributed the reduction in the filing to fluctuations in end-of-the-year payments from members that resulted in about 10,000 members not being counted in the union's 2018 filing.

Brian Rothenberg, a UAW spokesman, said its actual monthly membership numbers averaged over the course of the year was about 405,000 members, with the highest monthly membership dues received from 437,649 members in February. 

He said the UAW is not concerned about the drop. "In fact," he said, "we are encouraged that the steady average membership number will reflect growth in 2019, because since August of 2018 the UAW has organized over 10,500 new potential members in gaming, auto suppliers, higher education and other sectors.“

Declining UAW membership is never a good sign, said Harley Shaiken, who specializes in labor and the global economy at the University of California-Berkeley. Outsourcing, changes in the auto industry and other external factors can impact membership, he said.

"It means tough times," Shaiken told The News. "It's never good news for the union to lose numbers. But it doesn't come as a huge surprise."

But Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at Ann Arbor's Center for Automotive Research said she was "kind of shocked." 

"The union had been growing for the past few years," she said. The UAW had added nearly 15,000 new members in 2017, a 3.6 percent increase.

"Last year, it organized some new key groups, such as gaming dealers at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas," she said. "The automotive industry was strong for most of 2018."

She said 2019 is expected to bring layoffs from General Motors Co., and possible plant closures that could ding membership further.

The UAW’s filing did not break out membership for Michigan, where a so-called "right-to-work" law took effect in 2013 that prohibits union contracts from requiring “fair share” fees as a condition of employment to pay for the cost of collective bargaining agreements. However, there was a decrease in overall union membership in the state by about 5 percent in 2018, according to the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics said in January that the number of union members in Michigan decreased from 658,000 in 2017 to 625,000 last year, falling from 15.6 to 14.5 percent of the workforce.

The UAW is entering a year that will include negotiations with Detroit's car manufacturers on new labor contracts that are expected to be fractious.   

The union is also still dealing with the fallout of a scandal involving allegations of a multimillion-dollar conspiracy to divert worker training funds within the top ranks of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and the union that led to the indictments of five people. Former UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in downtown Detroit for an arraignment and a plea hearing in the Chrysler training center criminal case on April 2.

The UAW has struggled to gain a foothold in non-union auto plants in the South. Nissan workers at the Japanese manufacturer’s Canton Assembly Plant in Mississippi voted nearly 2-to-1 in 2017 against joining the labor union. The defeat marked the third time in nearly 30 years that Nissan workers in the South have voted against joining the UAW. Workers at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee, plant voted against joining the UAW by 2-to-1 in 1989 and 2001.

The Department of Labor filing showed the UAW spent $10,397,320 on political activities and lobbying in 2018, and $2,220,573 on contributions, gifts and grants. It says the union has $1,004,894,958 in net assets.

The UAW’s membership last topped 500,000 in 2006, when it reported having 538,448 members. The union had more than 701,000 members in 2002.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing