UAW revival gets flat tire in Alabama

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The United Auto Workers (UAW) on Friday  lost a high-profile bid to organize 5,000 Mercedes-Benz workers in a plant near Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The loss punctures the myth that the UAW is undergoing a revival under new President Shawn Fain.

“This is a David and Goliath fight,” Fain said in a statement after the losing vote. “Sometimes Goliath wins a battle. But David wins the war. These workers will win their fair share. And we will be there every step of the way to support them.”

My Bible is rusty but I remember David and Goliath being just the one match, and the UAW numbers are starting to look more like flight than fight. Even counting a recent win organizing at a Volkswagen plan in Tennessee last month, UAW membership is down 9,000 overall in the last year.

The Alabama workers voted 56-44 percent against unionization. The majority just didn’t find the union’s offer that appealing, at least not right now. “We have the company’s ear, for the first time in a long time. If our management doesn’t get it right, we can vote the union in a year from now,” worker Melissa Howell told the Wall Street Journal.

The vote was closely-watched because the labor movement has never been strong in the southern states, unions having historically been the most prominent in the industrial north and west coast. Getting a foothold in the south was seen as key to turning around the labor movement, which is down to just 10 percent of the overall US workforce.

The south has been a tough nut to crack for unions because all of the southern states have right to work laws allowing workers to opt-out  of paying union dues if they wish. In other states, unions insist on coercive contracts that force all workers to contribute, ensuring union coffers are full. Plus, southerners are ornery folks by nature who tend to look askance at outsiders coming in and telling them how to do things. As Miss Howell’s comments above indicate, they’d rather go it on their own if they can.

That narrative was supposed to have changed last month when the UAW won a vote to represent 4,300 workers at a Chattanooga Volkswagen plant. It was viewed as a breakthrough because the union had tried twice before to organize that plant but come up short. That win came a few short months after a much-publicized weeks-long strike against Ford, GM, and Stellantis, owner of the Chrysler brand. The strike ended with the UAW signing new contracts with the three. The events caused many to proclaim that the UAW, which long been plagued by serious internal corruption under its past presidents, had roared back to life under Fain.

The UAW is not as strong as it appears. The union is in fact hemorrhaging members, having lost 13,000 in 2023, according to filings the union made with the Labor Department. The overall number stands about 374,000, counting the Volkswagen win. The union had 430,000 members as recently as 2017. Even if it had won the Alabama vote, the UAW would still have been more than 3,000 members below where it was in in 2022.

The UAW increasingly isn’t even an autoworkers union anymore, having expanded into education and other sectors. An estimated 237,000 members – a majority – do not work in the auto sector at all.

The UAW has also been spending money at a faster clip. It paid out $152 million in strike benefits last year according to the filings, up from just $46 million the previous year. To offset this, the UAW has apparently boosted membership dues. The union’s revenue for 2023 includes $191 million from “per capita tax,” the term unions use for membership dues. That’s up from $181 million in 2022. The back of the envelope math says that membership dues went from $473 annually in 2022 to $516 last year.

It’s not surprising that the Mercedes-Benz workers took a look at that and said, “Maybe we can do better on our own.”