UAW flush, but dues in free-fall

Membership in the United Auto Workers dropped sharply last year to a new post-World War II low, reflecting a dramatic retrenchment of the U.S. auto industry and widespread buyouts at Detroit's Big Three automakers and suppliers. The Detroit-based union's membership declined by 13.7 percent to 464,910, a loss of 73,538 members compared with 2006, according to the union's annual report filed Friday with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The UAW has lost 237,000 members since the end of 2001 as Detroit automakers and suppliers have cut jobs and closed factories to become more competitive with lower-cost rivals.

"The UAW may finally have stemmed the bleeding," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of labor studies at the University of California at Berkeley. "But clearly no union was going to be able to withstand the implosion of the domestic auto industry without heavy losses in membership."

The 2007 membership tally is the lowest since 1941, when the UAW was 5 years old and had 460,791 members. Membership peaked in 1979 at 1.5 million.

UAW spokesman Roger Kerson declined to comment Friday on the report.

The union has long argued that a 12-month average membership count is more accurate than the figure reported to the government, which is membership as of Dec. 31, 2007. By that count, the UAW's membership declined from 576,131 in 2006 to 512,560 in 2007, according to the union.

The UAW has vowed to reverse the declines, although it has been unsuccessful at organizing new U.S. auto plants opened by foreign automakers.
Union works to extend reach

The union has made some small gains among suppliers -- notably organizing 2,000 members at Toledo-based Dana Corp. -- and has more than 100,000 members in its technical, office and professional unit who aren't connected to the auto industry.

On Friday, the UAW praised the signing of legislation granting collective bargaining rights to research assistants, teaching assistants and others at Washington State University.

UAW membership includes thousands of casino workers in Detroit and elsewhere, Wayne County assistant prosecutors and more than 25,000 teaching assistants in Washington, California and Massachusetts. The UAW represents 22,000 workers in Michigan government as well.

The ranks of the UAW fell even as overall union membership in the country climbed slightly last year, with 7.5 percent of private sector workers belonging to a union. In Michigan, 842,000 workers in the public and private sector belonged to a union last year -- 19.6 percent of all workers -- up from 819,000 in 2006. Michigan has the fourth-highest number of union workers in the United States.

The UAW's decline mirrors that of the entire auto and auto parts industry. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that auto and auto parts employment had dropped 12.9 percent over the last year to 946,700 jobs nationwide in February, down from 1.02 million.

Automakers and suppliers continue to shed jobs amid worries that 2008 could be the worst year for auto sales in a decade.

In recent weeks, General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC have rolled out more buyout and early retirement offers to encourage veteran workers to leave who could be replaced with lower-paid new hires under new labor contracts negotiated with the UAW last year.

At the same time, some of the recruiting challenges facing the union are evident in the situation at Detroit-based supplier American Axle & Manufacturing Inc. Last month, more than 3,600 UAW-represented workers went on strike at American Axle, shutting down plants in Michigan and New York.

"They aren't helping themselves with recruiting efforts with the American Axle strike," said Gerald Meyers, a University of Michigan business professor and former chairman of American Motors. But a labor deal that cuts workers' wages in half "could also ruin their organizing effort," he said.

Meyers said the UAW needs a two-tier recruiting strategy that targets workers at U.S. auto plants run by foreign automakers, known as transplants, and non-automotive membership.

"They have to go after the transplants with a new approach -- a new formula," Meyers said. "The transplants are aging. The people are getting older and the transplants are trying to cut down on wages and benefits. The more they go after cost reductions the more vulnerable they become to organizing."

Meyers said the union also needs to focus on industries where it has made progress, such as government workers and casino workers.

Shaiken said the UAW may have more success with one of its top priorities, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, if a Democrat is elected president this fall.

The UAW says the act makes it easier for workers to form unions and prevents anti-organizing activities by employers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the bill would unfairly tip the balance in favor of unions and "impose unreasonable contracts on employers."

"The UAW has a real chance to make inroads with suppliers and in other fields beyond the auto industry," Shaiken said.

Union lists $1.25B in assets

Despite the drop in membership, the UAW remains a potent political force -- it represents 500,000 retirees in addition to working members -- and a financial powerhouse.

The union will become one of the single largest providers of health care in the United States when it takes responsibility for retiree health care from the Big Three starting in 2010. At GM alone, the UAW will take on $46.7 billion in retiree health care costs through a trust that will be largely funded by the automaker.

The union's finances remain relatively stable, according to the annual report. The union earned $75 million in interest on its investments last year, up from $59 million in 2006, and ended the year with $1.25 billion in assets, down slightly from $1.27 billion at the end of 2006.

The UAW paid out $330.4 million last year -- $2.8 million more than the $327.6 million it collected -- but cut its spending on political activities to $6.9 million from $9.6 million in 2006. It spent $105,000 on an advertising campaign to influence energy legislation that called for raising fuel economy standards.

The UAW has moved to cut costs, shutting smaller local unions near factories that have closed. In 2006, the union closed about 25 local union halls and preliminary reports show at least 20 of the UAW's approximately 800 locals closed in 2007. The union sold $20.4 million in assets last year, including four union halls in Alabama, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger was awarded a 4 percent pay hike in 2007, to $150,763.


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