The December 5, 2006 issue of Workforce Management reports that 38,000 Ford Motor Co. employees agreed to take the company’s buyout offers. This could not have been welcome news for the United Auto Workers (UAW), already faced with declining membership. UAW, has already seen its membership fall to 598,000 from 1.5 million 20 years ago.
Faced with these challenges, UAW leadership is forced to look at alternatives for survival. Likely alternatives include merging with other labor organizations or targeting workers in industries not historically a focus for the UAW. Both the UAW and the machinists union have been trying to organize retail auto dealerships, so a merger among them might make sense. UAW has considered mergers previously but faced too many obstacles. What may be a more likely course is a focus on industries and employers increasingly more distant from automobile manufacturing. Such a strategy may place health care organizations, particularly hospitals in the crosshairs for a reeling UAW. At present UAW represents employees from a small number of Ohio hospitals.
A Fortune 500 company with ties to auto manufacturing became a target in 2006. UAW tactics included corporate attacks and aggressive Website pages towards the company. Three of the company’s sites were targeted, including two facilities in Ohio. UAW also distributed DVDs to employee homes. In addition to the union website and DVDs, the UAW continued traditional organizing methods such as hand billing, union meetings with employees, picnic for employees, having a state senator speak to employees at a union rally, home visits, telephone calls to employees’ homes, engagement of union members from other UAW facilities, former employees participating in the campaign on behalf of the union, letter to employees from another UAW local, etc. As UAW looks beyond traditional employers, hospitals may become more likely targets.
Ultimately this Fortune 500 company, with the assistance from Management Performance International (MPI), prevailed in all three campaigns; when UAW was defeated in one Ohio location and another location outside Ohio. Additionally, UAW was never able to gain a “showing-of-interest” at the second Ohio location. MPI worked closely with leadership of the company to overcome vulnerabilities that had resulted in the company’s losses to UAW in three previous elections before learning of MPI’s services and record of success in union campaigns. MPI is an OHA Corporate partner demonstrating a commitment to the success of Ohio’s hospital community. Contact OHA or MPI for more information about these campaigns or other organized labor activity.
Industry experts say the union may need to take some type of drastic action if it wants to continue to wield the clout that it once had.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the UAW decided to merge with another industrial union,” says Jim Hendricks, a founding partner in the Chicago office of law firm Fisher & Phillips. “The buyouts at General Motors and Ford severely reduce the number of active members paying dues at the union, and this in turn affects the union’s ability to organize.”
For employers in manufacturing, a UAW merger could result in a jump in organizing activity.
“We might be heading in the direction of having one big industrial union,” says Mark Neuberger, a partner in the Miami office of Buchanan Ingersoll. “This could result in more political clout for labor, especially if the Democrats retain control [of Congress] in 2008.”
Labor attorneys say that logical mergers for the UAW would be either with the United Steelworkers of America or the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
But the UAW has tried to merge with these unions before. Ten years ago, a merger between the autoworkers, steelworkers and machinists fell through because the three groups couldn’t see past their differences, says Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“There were too many differences in the way they selected officers and were organized,” he says.
But trying again might be the easiest option for growth the UAW has, Neuberger says. The only alternative it has would be to try to establish alliances internationally, particularly in China, where the auto industry is taking off.
“It would be easier for them to try a merger than set up a union in China,” he says.