Hard times for auto industry, hard times for its workers

As UAW members meet starting today, companies are shedding jobs


Edgy Las Vegas, the paradise for risk takers, might not be the best place right now for a United Auto Workers union convention.

Then again, what better city is there for sharing hard-luck stories?

And for many of those taking part in the UAW's four-day gathering that begins today in Las Vegas, these have been very tough times with little sign of any let-up.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. plan to shed at least 60,000 workers in coming years, or more if they can't stop their slide. Bankrupt auto parts maker Delphi Corp. threatens to cut loose up to 20,000 UAW workers and impose stiff contract cutbacks on the survivors.

Its fate latched to the disappearing U.S. auto industry, the union has shrunk to just under 600,000 members, down from more than 1.5 million it counted in its ranks more than 30 years ago. Meanwhile, foreign automakers' factories have proliferated across the United States, but the union has been unable to organize a single one not linked in some way to an American automaker.

Their eye on these and other factors, union and auto industry experts say the union's Las Vegas meeting could be one of its most important in years. And the No. 1 question, they say, is what kind of blueprint the UAW's leaders will lay out for the 71-year-old union, which faces a critical round in bargaining next year with the three U.S. automakers.

"The principles that are going to shape the bargaining are going to be on display," predicted Harley Shaiken, a veteran UAW observer and labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

Under UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, 61, who is up for re-election, the union's strategy has been to keep the level of benefits and wages that were built up over years, while making limited concessions to help the automakers compete, according to Shaiken.

"They've managed to hang on to a lot, but what they've had to give up is painful," he said.

Some of the concessions made by the union include agreeing to require retirees to pick up some health care costs and putting off a wage increase for workers to ease the financial crunch for the automakers.

Dave Cole, head of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., who is familiar with the auto industry's thinking, expects Gettelfinger's re-election to lead the way for even more collaboration between the three automakers and union.

The union is far more willing, according to Cole, to get along with the auto companies than might be guessed from some of Gettelfinger's sometimes tough talk.

"You hear talk about strike votes, but the actions of the union are quite the opposite," Cole said.

Yet not everyone is convinced the UAW has a solid plan for its survival, whether that means more cooperation with the auto companies or not.

"Despite the fact that they [the union] have been hemorrhaging for years, there doesn't seem to be a sense of crisis or exploration of new strategies," said Frank Joyce, the union's former spokesman. "They continue to act as if 100 percent of their problems are controlled by external sources."

Yet he is also critical of the union's dissidents, saying they "are not offering any alternatives either."

One thing seems sure to take place in Las Vegas: Gettelfinger's re-election.

A former Marine and college-trained accountant from southern Indiana who worked his way up the union's ranks, Gettelfinger is the latest leader in a union that has been a virtual one-party state since the days of Walter Reuther.

For a union that once saw itself as the outspoken conscience of blue-collar America, Gettelfinger has also been a different kind of leader. He has avoided the spotlight in Washington or elsewhere except on issues that affect the union and even then rarely speaks to the news media. He has brought a gritty determination to get things done at Solidarity House, the union's Detroit headquarters.

Determined to rebuild its ranks, the union vowed several years ago to pump up its organizing, and it has organized 60,000 members since 2002. Most of these are factory workers, and 11,000 of them work at auto parts plants in the South, a region that remains phobic about unions.

Still, the organizing effort has been offset by the steady shrinkage of the automakers and auto parts industry, where the union represents one out of five parts workers.

While there will not be a change at the very top, the union's leadership will be undergoing a changing of the guard in its executive and top ranks. Three out of five vice president positions will be filled at the convention, and so will five of the union's 11 regional director positions.

What route the UAW takes down the road is an issue that some would say matters way beyond the ranks of those gathered in Las Vegas.

Stephen Franklin writes for the Chicago Tribune

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