The UAW’s future


The United Auto Workers met this week in Detroit for the union’s quad-rennial convention. Delegates elected a new president, raised members’ dues — and groped toward a future.

The UAW has seen better days. Membership is about 390,000 — one-fourth of what it was at its peak in the 1970s.

Outgoing UAW president Bob King staked his reputation on attempts to organize “transplant” factories built by foreign automakers, mainly in the South. Those efforts failed: Most embarrassingly, the UAW couldn’t win an organizing vote this year at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee where the automaker indicated it wouldn’t mind having the union.

The UAW emptied its coffers in a futile attempt to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the Michigan Constitution. That effort backfired so badly that Republican legislators pushed through a law making Michigan a right-to-work state.

The UAW’s new president, Dennis Williams, had been the union’s secretary-treasurer. He will try to turn the UAW’s fortunes around, but he isn’t likely to have much of a honeymoon.

Contracts with the Detroit Three automakers expire next year. Many rank-and-file UAW workers are disgruntled about the new dues increase.

They also are unhappy about the two-tier wage system the UAW agreed to accept years ago to help save the U.S. industry. Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, says he thinks the lower wage should become standard for all new hires.

The union faces another looming shadow: Transplant work forces are growing. Soon, most U.S. auto workers may not be represented by the UAW.

Mr. Williams calls himself “a long-term strategist.” He will need to be — but also to score short-term successes as well. He could look to the pattern of labor-management cooperation at Jeep in Toledo for clues to how to break the old antagonistic model, and get beyond tactics that should be as obsolete as tail fins.