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The United Auto Workers union was once a powerful, large, proud and effective organization. It reached its prominence under Walther Reuther (1907 – 1970). His life was full of fire. He was a long-term socialist who dabbled with communism. He even spent some time in the Soviet Union and had praise for its system. His tenure with the UAW was quite positive as he transformed “wage slaves” to a well-paid group of workers with benefits that brought many to envy. Mr. Reuther also was involved in the Civil Rights Era. He was good friends with Rev. Martin Luther King and would participate in many of Rev. King’s events including the March on Washington in 1963. The legend died in a suspicious plane crash. There were previous attempts on his life and I figure that J. Edgar Hoover may have had something to do with it. It was during the same time the FBI messed with Rev. King, Malcolm X and others who wanted true freedom. The FBI has a 200 page investigative report on the plane crash but will not share it with the public.
The demise of Walther Reuther has had a serious impact on the UAW. The union began to flex its power without wisdom. It fought for benefits and salaries that were largesse. I lived in Detroit in the 1970’s and it was common to hear auto workers bragging about their big paychecks, lunch at the designated bar, 30 years retirement plan (30 and out). Oh, they were booming!
Then came the 1980’s and things started changing for the worse. Foreign auto manufacturers entered the US market and created serious competition for US auto makers. We were stubborn about the changes from the Clean Air Act which has made an incredible difference for our local environment. That and the cost of gasoline threw our auto makers for an incredible spiral downward in sales and profits. We almost lost Chrysler a few times (Fiat from Italy is the principal owner now). General Motors and Ford have been on the ropes more than once also. Our auto industry has been damaged and the onerous union demands have played a role in that.
Today, the UAW is not what it once was. Since 1979, its membership has shrunk by 75%. There has been a boom in plant openings but these plants do not cater to the UAW. They are built in rural areas to meet the Clean Air Act requirements – usually in the South. In communities that were once impoverished gigantic auto plants have become a common thing. With these plants come numerous suppliers feeding the needs of the auto makers. With that comes new housing, restaurants, hotels, retail centers and on and on. Take little Canton, Mississippi for an example. That Nissan plant hires 16,000 well paid employees and has stimulated industrial parks and an economic boom to central Mississippi. The workers are happy and they are not going to ruin their good thing.
It is not coincidental that these new plants are in Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, etc. These are right-to-work states. Workers cannot be forced to join a union. The size of each of these plants is absolutely gigantic compared to the standard US plants that are mostly located in the North. They are big and full of workers. These workers will never become union members. Thus, the UAW is up against the wall. One big question is can they afford to keep paying for those big retirement packages they settled on in the 1970’s? Probably not.
The UAW is quite desperate right now. They have to find a way to grow membership or risk destruction. Their current president, Bob King, is staking his legacy on organizing these giant plants representing international auto makers in the South. I believe he has a big problem. He wants to change a culture and way of life in a part of this nation where the people are proud and hold a natural work ethic. How he wants to do it is “old school union” and that isn’t going to work in this high tech era. How do you convince a person to shake down his boss simply for the hustle of it and pay a part to the instigator (union dues)? They are doing fine and will not mess that up.
The strategy is two-fold. One is to organize a small group of workers and have them intimidate the other workers to vote on unionizing. This is known as the “card check scheme”. Another and more insulting method is to declare unionizing as part of the Civil Rights Movement. This has nothing to do with race, discrimination or inhumanity. They have even paid Black ministers and local civil rights organizations to protest on their behalf. The public is not going to be fooled. Detroit is officially bankrupt and Michigan is now a right-to-work state. Goodbye UAW.
Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, President and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.