DETROIT - As they were getting ready for the big United Auto Workers convention that is opening here at Cobo Hall today, many members talked about what they say are some of the union's biggest challenges.
"We had 3,600 in my plant. Now we have 360," one member said as he passed by. That was his entire greeting - he didn't say what local union he was from or from what part of the country he had come. But it wouldn't have mattered a great deal. Such stories were common.
While having breakfast beside the big statue of boxer Joe Louis, another auto worker told his story. He took an early buy-out after many years with General Motors, then took a job with a company recently outsourced from Ford. The pay was low, but there was some hope of unionization, because the UAW had negotiated a union election when Ford sold off its parts divisions.
Fortunately for this brother, the union just barely prevailed in the election and the 4,000 employees, some old Ford members and some new hires, became UAW members. But automated techniques and new divisions of labor soon brought the workforce down to around 1,500. Wages and benefits weren't what they were under a Ford contract by any means, but "at least we're union" he said with relief in his voice.
As we talked, we could see a giant modern building in the window behind us. It said "General Motors" at top. It looks like a glorious steel and glass castle towering over all. Below it, cars turned off the street into a parking lot below Cobo Hall. I commented that more of them seemed to be American made cars, here in Motor City, than I was used to seeing at home.
The union man then began to explain his view of the entire problem of America. "People try to save money, but they don't realize that they're hurting themselves in the long run." He went on to tell me that his own grown children, some of them college-educated and some with only high school degrees, all drive American-made automobiles.
I wanted to say that the data is in on "buy American" as the UAW's main strategy and it hasn't worked. But, like most UAW members, my breakfast companion still sees "buy American" as our only hope. He still feels that things will get better only when Americans wake up someday and put an end to foreign cars on our highways.
The conversation turned to pensions, and my union brother said that they only offer 401(k)'s at his present plant. Younger workers, he said, would spend $200 on tennis shoes but wouldn't put $20 into their savings plan.
I commented that contribution plans like 401(k)'s are now proven failures in providing retirement security, and he agreed completely.
Most auto workers still have defined benefit pensions, but the UAW members in aerospace, auto parts, and agricultural implements are losing them. The bleakest part of the outlook is the downsizing and outsourcing that have brought the union down from 1.6 million to around 400,000 members nationwide.
The challenges are intimidating, but several new efforts, both national and international, are under way. Leading up to the 36th convention, UAW leaders have been stressing the "PRO" program. "P" for "participation," "R" for "Resources," and "O" for "Organizing." The convention now beginning will show the possibilities for this important effort. By the end of the convention, people here expect hey will have a better idea of whether the UAW can overcome its difficulties.
At the opening session today optimism about the future was in evidence.
Detroit's mayor, Mike Duggan, told the 1,000 delegates tht thewayin which the auto industry and the union have been able to battle back after the Great Recession "gives hope to Detroit, which is fighting through its own bankruptcy."
Photo: UAW Facebook page