Column: The UAW’s identity crisis
Over Labor Day, many Americans celebrated the contributions that unions like the United Auto Workers have made to the workplace. As a Ford hourly employee, I don’t take these historic improvements for granted.
No one denies the UAW’s early achievements for workers. But these worker benefits and protections have long since become customary and many are even protected by law. Today, after numerous rejections by workers, the UAW finds itself scrambling to find meaning and relevance.
Rather than declare victory and return its almost $1 billion in assets to the membership, the UAW has done what so many other unions have done when they achieve their original goals: move the goalposts.
With good wages and working conditions met, in recent decades the UAW has used its power to pursue contract demands that benefit the union’s bottom line — many times at the expense of workers. Many of those demands are unrealistic and employers will instead outsource jobs instead of being forced into a damaging contract.
I’ve seen the UAW’s evolution first hand as an hourly, 21-year autoworker at Ford Motor Company.
After years of frustration watching my hard-earned dues payments go to fund causes I didn’t believe in, the final straw came for me when I read a 2009 article in the union’s newsletter that profanely used my religion for political purposes. We should all agree workers should not be forced to financially support causes they don’t believe in.
In 2016, the union reported spending over $13 million on political activities and lobbying.
It is also spending large sums of dues money on unusual organizing excursions — like trying to organize employees at Harvard, Columbia, and Boston College. The UAW spent roughly $700,000 trying to organize the contingent faculty at Barnard College, and nearly $300,000 on the high-priced Manhattan PR firm Berlin Rosen for advertising in its Columbia organization efforts in 2016.
Auto workers have consistently rejected the UAW’s attempts at southern expansion. Most recently, workers at a Nissan plant in Mississippi voted against UAW representation by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Millions of dollars were spent courting workers who clearly want no relationship with them. Now the UAW has its sights on the automaker Tesla. A union still clinging onto a business model from the ’50s, not to mention archaic contract demands, could be especially detrimental to such a tech-driven automaker.
“With the UAW, all you’ve got to do is look at their history,” said Tony Hobson, a forklift driver at the Nissan plant. That history is not pretty. News broke this summer that late UAW Vice President General Holiefield allegedly engaged in a criminal, money-skimming operation. The indictment claims that while receiving a large, dues-funded salary and benefits, hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked for workers were redirected to Holiefield’s wife. One bad apple? Unfortunately for workers, no. At least 47 UAW officials have pleaded guilty to corruption and embezzlement charges since 2001.
If the UAW would simply devote its members’ dues to reasonable wage and working conditions rather than using them for political and personal ambitions, they might still have some value on a voluntary basis. However, there is no future indication that UAW officials are willing to be reasonable and practical with their members’ money. Employees in other companies and industries who are considering the union’s pitch should treat it with the appropriate concern.
Terry Bowman is a UAW worker at Ford Motor Co. and president of Union Conservatives Inc.