If the UAW wants a future, it has to let go of the past, and become an organization of professional, highly productive workers that companies will seek out. First lets take a look at the manufacturing sector today in the United States, and also how the UAW functioned up to this point.

U.S. manufacturing has been on a downward slide for at least 20 years. Most of these jobs will never come back. They have gone to low wage nations, and that is where they are going to stay. Membership in unions has steadily declined as well. So in the future there will be fewer opportunites in manufacturing, and most jobs will require trained, skilled workers.

But the UAW, as well as other shrinking unions, such as the steelworkers, coal miners, and others were geared to massive industries that required, mostly, grunt labor that were neither trained nor skilled. Membership in these unions, typically, required only that an employee be hired, survive the 30 day probationary period set up by the company, and then become a union member. Usually there were no educational or skill requirements. Many UAW workers had not even graduated from high school. Their job was mostly the result of luck, whereby they filled out the right application at the right company at the right time, were hired, survived the 30 day probation, and were admitted to the union.

The wages and benefits these union members received had nothing to do with what they produced. Wages and benefits were negotiated between the union and the company, and applied across the board to all members, whether they produced little or were very productive. Each worker received the same, regardless of his value to the company. This homogenized the work force, with each worker doing as little as the company would tolerate, since there was no reward for producing more or better quality. From my experience it produced a work force consisting of frustrated people who wanted to be highly productive, but were prevented from doing so, and a group of very happy, mediocre workers who could not survive if their livlihood depended on how much they produced. 

The wages and benefits negotiated by the UAW were achieved by brute force. They either got what they demanded, or they went on strike and  shut the company down. Eventually, the reasoning went, the company would see it their way, and agree to the demands, because if they did not they would eventually go bankrupt. They picked a “target” company out of the Big 3 to strike, knowing that the other two companies would continue to run, which provided the union with operating money for their “strike war chest.”  The other two companies would also gain market share from the company that was shut down by the strike, thus putting more pressure on management to yield to the UAW demands. When the target company conceded, the UAW then went after the other two companies.

The UAW protected all their members, regardless of whether they produced or did not produce. They protected drunks, drug addicts, habitual absenteeism, and any and all violations of morality, ethics, or honesty. At Ford a UAW member attacked me with a knife. He was fired. But the UAW backed him completely and, after 4 months, he was returned to his job, with full back pay plus a factor for overtime that he would have had an opportunity to earn had he not been fired. All records of the incident were purged from his file. Another UAW member murdered his wife, and the UAW helped pay for a lawyer, and completely backed him, even though he admitted to murdering his wife. They negotiated with Ford to keep his job open, and his seniority running during the time that he was incarcerated. My biggest problem as a first line supervisor was getting sober workers that showed up for work. To fire a UAW worker, regardless of what he had done, required something akin to a Supreme Court ruling.

But that was then, and this is now. Today’s and tomorrow’s jobs will be awarded to skilled, trained people who produce. No company will be financially able to pay people who do not produce. Nor will they be able to tolerate a union protecting non producers via brute force. The laws of economics have not been repealed, and a person is only as valuable to a company as the work that he or she produces.

This new economy will take adaptation, and will not be easy. It has already happened in the coal fields. For 100 years coal miners were basically grunt laborers, shoveling coal. But a trained monkey can shovel coal. In today’s coal industry a coal miner is a highly trained, skilled computer savvy professional who has little need of a union because he can earn up to $100,000 a year and there is a shortage of skilled coal miners. His success depends entirely on his abilities and knowledge, as well as how much he produces, and companies compete for his services.

According to the Kiplinger letter, the UAW is mulling how to survive shrinking rolls, and is considering merging with another shrinking union, rumor being the shrinking United Steel Workers. But if they merge and continue to operate as they always  have, they will continue to shrink as a significant part of American industry. So what do they need to do?

The need to become professional organizations that police their own ranks. They need to have entrance requirements. Members need to have qualifications to belong. They need to prove that they are productive, skilled workers with a strong work ethic. Management should not have to put up with workers who drink, workers who have attendance problems, or workers who do not produce. The union should take care of these kinds of problems.

If they changed to this kind of an organization, then companies would compete to hire UAW workers and the decline in membershipship would be over.The UAW needs to adjust to a world where a worker is compensated for what he produces, and not how much brute union force he has backing him up. Like it or not, that is the world that we now live in, and that is not likely to change in our lifetime.