Despite corruption scandal and pandemic, UAW membership steady

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

The United Auto Workers' membership decreased less than 2,000 people year-over-year by the end of 2020, according to the union, despite a racketeering scandal that has led to government oversight of the union and the COVID-19 pandemic that took many workers off payrolls deep into the year.

Average membership fell less than 1% to 397,073 in 2020, according to the UAW, which says it will file its annual paperwork with the U.S. Labor Department later this week after an audit. The numbers are reflective of members who by Dec. 31 paid dues, which typically are deducted from their paychecks. Certain members like those working for Detroit's casinos that reopened with limited capacity just before the new year may not have had a pay cycle in time, UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said.

UAW International President Rory Gamble speaks during a press conference with United States Attorney Matthew Schneider.

Despite the decline in membership, net income increased more than 10% to $12.7 million thanks to investment earnings, and the union replenished its strike fund with a 7% increase to $790 million after a 40-day national strike at General Motors Co. during contract talks in 2019.

“The UAW managed a very difficult pandemic year reporting steady membership numbers and weathering pandemic shutdowns," UAW President Rory Gamble said in a statement. "We believe actual membership is higher when you account for members who were still sidelined during the pandemic in December and the timing of payroll and dues remitted by our local unions around the holiday shutdown.”

The Detroit Free Press first reported the results. The UAW had 398,829 members in 2019.

Some businesses also have hired. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, now Stellantis NV, is in the process of hiring thousands of UAW-represented workers after investing into some of its plants in Metro Detroit, including the new $1.6 billion Mack Assembly Plant on Detroit's east side.

"They're a middleman in between you and your supervisor," said Bernard Callaway, who was hired last year as a temporary worker at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant making Ram trucks and is now a part of the team readying for the launch of the Jeep Grand Cherokee L at Mack. His previous manufacturing job, he said, didn't have an advocate the UAW now offers.

"They're meant to tell you about your contract and answer all your contract questions. They fight really hard for you, because we do pay their dues."

Bernard Callaway, 32, of Detroit, shows his FCA and UAW jacket on Wednesday, September 23, 2020 as he has been hired as a production operator at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles new assembly plant on the east side of Detroit.  
FCA agreed to hire first from Detroiters for the plant, and Callaway is one of the beneficiaries of the agreement.

In late January, a federal court approved a consent decree announced in December that puts the beleaguered union under a federal monitor for six years and will allow members to vote on whether to amend their constitution to directly elect leaders.

It aims to eliminate fraud and wrongdoing within one of the nation's most influential unions following a years-long crackdown on corrupt labor leaders. The investigation resulted in 15 convictions of UAW and FCA officials, including former UAW presidents Gary Jones and Dennis Williams.

The investigation revealed labor leaders and auto executives broke federal labor laws, stole union funds and received bribes and illegal benefits from union contractors and FCA executives. The money was found to have been used for personal luxuries on trips for training and conferences in places like Palm Springs, California. FCA separately pleaded guilty in March for violating the Labor Management Relations Act, agreeing to pay $30 million and be subject to three years of federal oversight in its labor relations.

"There still is a significant level of confidence in the UAW as an organization, and there's been very few de-certification votes," said Art Wheaton, an automotive industry specialist at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School. "There has been no mass exodus of union locals or members. I don’t think the scandal hurt them in terms of membership numbers. It hurt them in their public reputation."

The union has implemented a number of measures in response to the discoveries, including monetary controls and audits.

The COVID-19 pandemic also curbed spending costs, including for travel, Rothenberg said. They were $3 million less in 2020 than in 2019, and meeting expenses were $1.5 million less. Total figures were not available.

The UAW did send about 500 members in February 2020 to Washington, D.C., to meet with policymakers for its annual political outreach conference. The union implemented a travel ban in early March as the COVID-19 situation worsened, and all travel done after that was considered essential, Rothenberg said.

Secretary-Treasurer Ray Curry in a statement said investments in technology helped to make up for the challenges by the inability to travel.

“The bottom line is that the UAW ended the year balanced with modest growth and the strike fund continued to grow at a healthy pace," he said. "In addition, with our new stringent internal and external auditing, members can be assured that these numbers reflect the solid way in which the union has handled such a challenging year.”

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble