The United Auto Workers may have won some of its biggest contract gains ever at the end of its six-week fight with the Detroit Three automakers, but experts say there still is a long way to go to restore union membership to peak levels reached more than 40 years ago.
UAW membership, like union ranks across the country, has been on the decline for years, according to data reported by the union to the Department of Labor. In 1994, the union claimed nearly 800,000 members, down from a peak of around 1.5 million in 1979. In 2022, the most recent year reported, the union tallied about 383,000 members.
But the union is ripe for a boost, experts and union leaders say — if it is willing to take the dramatic steps needed to capitalize on the huge contracts it just won and expand its reach not just to American automakers but also to foreign-owned rivals operating factories across the country, primarily in the Midwest and the South.
It won’t be easy. Those plants are often in places with that don’t have strong union traditions, coupled with right-to-work laws, anti-labor politicians and companies that will fight hard against the UAW.
UAW President Shawn Fain sounds prepared to take on the fight. Speaking Thursday after announcing the specifics of Stellantis NV’s agreement with the UAW, he called the contracts “the most lucrative contract our union has won in decades.”
“These contracts are so good, even nonunion autoworkers are getting a raise,” he said, speaking pointedly about Toyota Motor Corp.’s recent wage increases after the Detroit Three contracts were made public. “Terrified auto executives across the country are rushing to give their own employees raises in hopes of fending off the UAW.”
If the UAW is able to grow, it’s going to have a long way to go before it gets back to its heyday.
It’s doing better than it was in 2008, the low-water mark when the union reported just over 355,000 members. It has grown since, reaching as high as 430,000 members in 2017, but the years since have proven more difficult. The UAW did not respond to requests for comment from The Detroit News.
The decline is expected, experts say. Changes in automotive employment — including shifts to electric vehicles, consolidation in a time of automation, annual turnover and retirement attrition — are among the contributing factors, said Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University who studies organized labor.
The UAW’s expansion to organize in sectors outside the auto industry also has undercut its effectiveness and diluted its mission, Masters said. The UAW began supporting other forms of labor movements in the 1950s, first as a growth strategy and then later as a bulwark against declining membership in the auto sector.
“If the union wants to be the powerhouse it once was, it needs to focus on auto industries and reduce technical — nonauto sector, casino operations and higher education or other parts of the public sector that it serves,” Masters said. “It’s going to have a hard time.”
Half of UAW members work in the automotive sector, according to the union. Comparatively, about 15% are casino workers, technical, office and professional sectors while another 15% work in aerospace, heavy trucks and buses, and agriculture and construction equipment centers. The remaining 20% is split evenly between those who manufacture other products and those in higher education and health care.
“You would be hard-pressed to find a sector of the economy untouched by a UAW member,” the union says in its 2023 UAW education report. But a focus on cars, trucks and SUVs, including unionizing other automakers, could make a big difference.
“They are very eager to start organizing the top five, including Toyota and Tesla,” Masters said, “and they will make that a major part of the future effort and that’s a viability of its future.”
The UAW has tried and failed to unionize foreign automakers operating down before, primarily in the South. But after seeing the success of the new contracts with the Detroit Three, Fain and fellow union leaders say they believe now could be the time to deliver vastly different results.
‘A lot at stake for both legacy and new workers’
There are more than 600 UAW locals in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. The most active UAW members are found in the Midwest as well as some of the largest states across the country.
Legacy members like John Snyder, 62, noted while still on strike on Oct. 25 that unions need to appeal to more than just long-term employees like him.
Snyder initially started in 1987 as a worker at the then-Mazda Motor Corp. plant in Flat Rock making $9.33 an hour. Then, he worked at the Toledo plant before being assigned to Ford Motor Co.’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne in 2011. Before striking, he worked to ship parts out of the plant to dealerships, making $32 an hour.
“We prepared as best we could, penny-pinched as best we could over the years but are barely keeping up with inflation,” Snyder said. “There’s a lot at stake for both legacy and new workers. I’m sympathetic to second-tier workers who are on an eight-year progression to be hired full-time. Legacy workers like me are worried about money and retirement keeping up with inflation.”
At Mazda in the early ‘90s, the union was robust “with a very active membership that served both the company and members well.” By 2008, Snyder joined as a union representative for Local 3000 and recalled the union rank and file becoming more distant and uninvolved. When he arrived at Wayne, he took a backseat role but said “some people never thought there would be a strike.”
The election of Fain and others “lit a fire under them,” Snyder said while striking alongside his step-son, Alex Christmer, who recently started a job at a non-unionized auto part supplier eight months ago. The strike wore on his family, but he said he was glad to see the “positive change.”
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that nationally, union members (and even those just represented by unions) tend to make more money than their non-unionized counterparts. Pay gaps tend to be smaller between genders and racial groups for those in unions.
But across the country, union membership has been declining for years. The majority of Americans see that as a problem for both the United States and for the working people within it, according to a Pew Research poll from this spring.
There is a divide, however, between Democrats and Republicans on the issue — 76% of Democrats say the decline of union representation has been bad for the country, compared to only about 40% of Republicans. Younger people and those in lower-income brackets were much more likely to see the decline as a bad thing rather than a good thing.
A Gallup poll from last summer found that labor unions were at their highest approval rating since 1965, with 71% of people saying they approve of unions. But making the jump from approval to actually joining a union can be tricky.
The key will be winning over younger employees, experts say. That includes people like Tevyn Smith, 24, from Wayne. He started as a line operator for Ford in July 2020 making $16.67 an hour. Now, he works at Michigan Assembly in Wayne on trims, where he makes $21 an hour.
If money were the only issue the union was fighting for, he said, the contracts probably would have been resolved much earlier. But there was more at stake — retiree benefits, cost of living adjustments and job security were also important.
“It’s not just for the UAW,” Smith said, “it’s for the entire working class.”
‘Unionize organically, fight aggressively’
The UAW has a unique opportunity to rebound membership, said Harley Shaiken, a University of California-Berkeley professor who specializes in labor and formerly worked as a GM apprentice and briefly as a UAW consultant.
“Young workers bring a fresh perspective and possibilities of change with new ways of doing things and I think there’s a great spirit of the UAW — a union that was born during the toughest struggles and after the Second World War, it paved the road for the middle class,” Shaiken said. “Shawn Fain needs to take the spirit that built the union and adopt it to the age in which we’re in.”
The UAW’s greatest opportunity for growth is organizing non-union automakers starting with the battery plants, he said: “There will be a need for fewer workers for a given number of vehicles with the transition to electronic vehicles. However, moving into new areas will lay the basis for union growth.
“In an age of moving towards EVs, eliminating tiers is going to have an electric, positive impact. It will jumpstart organizing. McDonald’s is a promotional opportunity to what battery plants pay. But the new wages, that income UAW workers will be earning, I think will have an electric impact on organizing.”
That change might not be immediate, Shaiken added. There are going to be a lot of challenges to unionize other automakers, including anti-union politicians and regions of the country that don’t have as strong of a union tradition.
There are also employers, many of whom are expected to fight “tooth and nail” against unionization. Tesla Inc., in particular, is expected to fight hard: “However,” he said, “so did Henry Ford.”
A key part of what the UAW has done and needs to continue to do is provide a sense of dignity in employment, Shaiken said, by improving working conditions and making employees feel like they have a direct stake in the company. They need to prove that unions “do not make your company less competitive, but more competitive because you have higher motivation and considerable skills.”
Moving forward, Masters said, the UAW and other unions are going to have to be unconventional. The “stand up” strike strategy deployed by Fain and other union leaders was atypical, he said, and they need to build on that momentum going forward.
“Hopefully, they will be able to come up with a recipe that is more successful than they have had in the past. I’d look toward Amazon and Starbucks, when unions are relying upon grassroots campaigns that bring up from the rank-and-file and can enlist a broader community, get involved on social media, and are critical to organizing,” Masters said. “If they can build them up and spread them rapidly — this is the best time to do that.”