A Breakthrough For Labor

The UAW's membership gains in auto parts show a way to grow

Back in 1997, when the United Auto Workers (UAW) tried to sign up new members at car-seat maker Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI ), it met a familiar all-out-war mentality. Security guards barred organizers from entering the parking lot at JCI's plant in Taylor, Mich. And when the union staged a rally outside the plant, management bused employees in from a remote lot to keep them from meeting union recruiters. Bosses even dropped hints that if workers joined the UAW, it could jeopardize the plant's future.

Today the UAW not only represents the employees at the Taylor factory and nine other JCI plants but it also has signed up tens of thousands more at the major U.S. auto-parts makers, including Collins & Aikman (CKC ), Dana (DCN ), Lear (LEA ), and Metaldyne. The UAW's success -- it signed up 17,000 parts workers last year alone -- has enabled it to start reunionizing the parts industry after years of relentless membership losses that had occurred as the largely nonunion parts makers took over work outsourced by the Big Three auto makers.

The gains are modest so far: The union represents about 25% of the U.S. auto-parts industry's 570,000 workers, up from 23% in 1999 (though still way down from 56% in 1976). Still, it's an historic shift: Labor experts say no union has increased its representation of a basic U.S. industry since labor's share of the workforce began to slide half a century ago. "We were losing the industry," concedes Bob King, the UAW's vice-president for organizing. "But now our [share] is up, which is the first positive turn we've had."

The UAW's victory holds important lessons for organized labor and Corporate America. For more than a decade, union leaders and some outside experts have contended that labor's long-term decline stems not so much from workers' lack of interest in unions but rather from fierce opposition by management. The UAW's auto-parts success bolsters that claim. That's because signups haven't come through traditional elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which usually involve nasty battles between labor and management. Instead, the union has leaned on Detroit carmakers to persuade their parts suppliers to remain neutral when UAW recruiters come knocking. Rather than resist unionization, JCI and others have voluntarily recognized the UAW when a majority of a plant's workers sign union-recognition cards -- a process known as card check.


If the rest of the labor movement could blunt employers' animosity and get them to agree to neutrality and card checks, millions of workers would likely join labor's rolls, union officials argue. Indeed, unions are fond of citing polls showing that about 42 million U.S. workers -- some 40% of the workforce -- routinely say they would join a union if a vote were held at their work site. But once employers counterattack to keep a union out, studies show, many workers change their minds. As a result, unions have been mounting many fewer NLRB elections, which yielded just 74,000 new members last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Instead, they're turning increasingly to card checks, which now bring in something like 200,000 new members a year for the communications, garment, and other unions, the AFL-CIO estimates.

Labor is pushing hard to win legislation that would require companies to accept card checks. But those efforts are a long shot, say analysts, even if likely Democratic nominee John Kerry wins the Presidency. Meanwhile, the Republican majority on the NLRB is moving to tighten current card-check laws.


The UAW, of course, enjoys clout to demand card-check deals that most other unions don't because of its relationship with Detroit. The card-check strategy was devised by King, who saw it as a way to cope with the massive outsourcing by General Motors (GM ), Ford Motor (F ), and DaimlerChrysler (DCX ). In the 1990s, the UAW mounted local strikes to stop Detroit from subcontracting parts jobs to mostly nonunion suppliers such as JCI. But the Big Three figured they had little choice, given the competition from nonunion Japanese carmakers and Mexican parts makers.

So the UAW went to the auto makers with a deal. The union would stop battling if they would get parts suppliers to stop fighting union drives. The Big Three can't legally tell Dana Corp. or JCI what to do, but they have rewarded parts makers that play ball by outsourcing more work to them. In recent years, large U.S. parts makers have agreed and signed card-check pacts. "The Big Three told the UAW: 'We can't afford to do this work,"' says Roger A. Jackson, a senior vice-president for 110,000-worker Lear Corp. "'But the good news is we'll outsource this to a UAW-friendly supplier."'

The result: Many parts jobs offloaded by the Big Three remain union, although they now pay an average of $15.84 an hour, vs. the $22 carmakers had paid to do the work in-house. Auto makers are happy to cut their costs, parts makers are glad to get more work, and many workers are relieved their jobs didn't go overseas and that they have union protections such as grievance procedures.

The UAW still has a long way to go before it controls auto parts the way it does auto assembly. And there's still the large share held by nonunion Japanese carmakers. But after decades of decline, the union is showing new signs of life.

By David Welch in Detroit

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