Is UAW still an automaker union? How Gaza became a top issue

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The name “United Auto Workers” would appear to pretty clearly indicate who that union represents, but it is increasingly becoming inaccurate. Today, only about 146,000 of the union’s 383,000 total members work in the auto industry. An estimated 237,000 UAW members – a majority – do not work in the auto sector at all. The union has diversified to survive in modern times. That is leading it in different and unexpected directions.

The UAW has, for example, recently signed onto a call for a ceasefire in the Gaza War, one of the first major unions to do so. What does the conflict in the Middle East have to do with representing autoworkers in the US? Not much, but it makes more sense given that one of the UAW’s other largest membership groups is teaching assistants.

An estimated 100,000 of the UAW’s members work in higher education. Campus protests against the war have been raging. Signing on to the letter is therefore a way of addressing some of those members’ concerns. UAW hasn’t featured the news on its official website, but it is posted on affiliated social media.

“The only reason this is happening is because members of our unions and so many community members and citizens in our country are finally pressuring us to speak about this,” said UAW Region 9A Director Brandon Mancilla at Gaza rally Friday.

The union’s full proper name is “United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America.” But, as the Gazza letter situation indicates, it has grown well beyond those groups. There is no law requiring a union’s name to perfectly reflect who it represents.

Organizing particular sectors of the economy is nevertheless the pragmatic way to do things. It is easier to represent workers if they have common interests and concerns. A firefighters union might, for example, decide that ensuring good safety measures takes priority over negotiating other things, while a writers union might have unique concerns over intellectual property rights, and so on.

Do autoworkers and teaching assistants have that much in the way overlapping interests? The recent UAW contracts negotiated with Ford, GM and Stellantis boosted salaries by 25 percent. That will increase the labor costs at all three companies and that will ultimately result in higher sticker prices for the cars because that’s the nature of economics.

As a consequence, UAW’s non-automaker members may face a tough call when they buy their next car. Do they, in the name of solidarity with their union brothers and sisters, pay more for a car made with unionized labor? Or do they look out for their own bank account and buy a cheaper car from one of the nonunion competitors?

UAW’s recent contract negotiation may also result in it shedding more of its automaker members. Automakers are looking for ways to reduce their payrolls to deal with the higher costs. UAW negotiators probably knew that that was a potential consequence of the contract they negotiated – it’s a classic corporate move to deal with higher labor costs.

But automakers were a shrinking part of the UAW anyway, so the union leaders may have viewed that loss as an acceptable trade-off: Chalk up a win that the union can tout to all of our members. If we lose some automaker members in the process, well, we’re growing beyond Detroit anyway.

Sucks for the members who get laid off though.