Opinion: Workers often lose in UAW strikes
Will the Big Three automakers see their first strike in more than a decade? That depends on whether or not auto workers are ready to take a pay cut.
The UAW has threatened a "targeted" strike as soon as this fall, halting operations at either General Motors' Toledo transmission plant or its Tonawanda engine plant to trigger a "domino effect" on industry production. As if in preparation, UAW President Gary Jones recently reassured workers that the union had their back, pledging an increase in strike pay to $250 a week. But that money doesn't go far — a reality that's quickly sinking in for almost 1,000 nurses at Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo.
Represented by the UAW, these workers began a walkout early last month. It took almost three weeks of strikes before the union began paying employees $250 per week from its strike fund. For a nurse in Toledo who averages over $300 for one 12-hour shift, the $250 per week is a joke considering the union has $760 million in its strike fund. It’s no wonder some workers have chosen to cross the picket line and return to work.
The UAW has long relied on strikes as its favorite weapon against employers — regardless of how often this tactic has led to layoffs and company closures that ripple across the entire country. In Detroit, a strike at General Motors led to over 400,000 employees being laid off after just one month. That’s not to mention the layoffs that were triggered at affiliated companies across at least another 20 cities. A tiremaker in Los Angeles laid off 1,150 people. A Milwaukee car frame manufacturer laid off 2,500 workers. American Zinc Co. in St. Louis laid off another 380 based on the Detroit walkout.
As for the GM employees, the strike fund paid about 20 percent of their average wage.
When the UAW decided to go on strike at two Flint GM parts factories, it didn’t take long for the town to feel the impact — General Motors accounted for more than half the area’s employment. Sure, workers were drawing $150 per week from the strike fund, but that's not much compared to the $20 per hour, or $800 a week, they should have been making.
Like clockwork, this strike laid waste to thousands of jobs across the country. A windshield wiper factory in Rochester laid off 1,200 workers, the Lear Corp. laid off 2,800 employees at car seat factories from Delaware to Texas, and Harvard Industries laid off 900 workers at its factories in Tennessee, Virginia and New Hampshire.
Let’s not forget the fate of a Volkswagen plant in Westmoreland County, Pa., where the local UAW didn’t wait more than six months after the plant’s opening before launching unauthorized strikes. From the beginning, the wildcat strikes idled production and left employees with what one worker described as a “bad taste for unions.” The Volkswagen plant closed after 10 years, taking 2,500 jobs with it and devastating the entire county.
The union's reputation with its represented employees has recently suffered from a spotlight on the spending habits of its leaders; the strike fund was used to pay non-union workers to construct a luxury cabin for ex-President Dennis Williams. Fortunately, more auto workers have become familiar with the UAW’s playbook — it’s likely why the union just saw its largest drop in membership since the Great Recession.
Remaining UAW members should ask themselves if this is the type of track record worth staking their livelihood on.
Charlyce Bozzello is a communications director at the Center for Union Facts, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting for transparency and accountability in today's labor movement.