Are Bosses Endangering Unions’ Relevancy?

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Mary Kramer, Crain’s Detroit Business News, examines whether union bosses’ tactics are rendering unions more and more irrelevant.

In a couple of weeks, the United Auto Workers and Detroit automakers will kick off contract talks to replace four-year pacts that expire Sept. 14.

As Dave Barkholz has reported for our sibling publication Automotive News, the UAW hopes to eliminate or significantly change the “tier two” wage structure it approved in 2007 to help save the Detroit 3 and create jobs.

As the industry has rebounded, plants have hired thousands of new workers. Today, nearly 30 percent of the Detroit 3’s hourly workers are paid tier-two wages, which are roughly at least $10 an hour less than tier one.

For the union, the two tiers rub against the grain of the “equal pay for equal work” union philosophy. For the automakers, according to Barkholz, each additional dollar per hour in wages costs the automakers about $100 million.

Eventually, all this will play out among unionized suppliers, too, because supplier contracts mirror those of their biggest customers, [the] Detroit.

Tiered wages and transplants seem to be the big issues for the UAW’s future.

The union has been stymied in its attempts to organize foreign automakers with plants in the South; the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., was its last failure. So it now looks as if it is trying through the back door — by trying to organize suppliers that have some unionized plants already.

In a largely PR/pressure tactic, Lear Corp. has been picketed for allegedly creating unsafe working conditions at a small foam plant in Alabama that the UAW is trying to organize. Lear has a lot of unionized plants, but its customers for the Alabama plant are decidedly non-union.

So Lear has no interest in angering them by putting out the welcome mat for the UAW at that plant.

What do the Lear workers want? That could be settled with an election, but the UAW wants Lear to agree to a “card check” process — which is more susceptible to peer pressure than the secret-ballot process an election would afford.

But beyond the issues of tiered wages and transplants, the issue for all labor unions is relevance. Despite broad public concerns about economic inequality in the U.S., workers don’t seem to be clamoring for union representation as the solution.