Wednesday, June 14, 2006

UAW pours money into organizing

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

UAW pours money into organizing
Union will use $110M from strike fund to bolster membership and its day-to-day operations.

Brett Clanton / The Detroit News

LAS VEGAS -- The United Auto Workers approved a measure Tuesday that will shift up to $110 million from the union's strike fund to support recruiting efforts and help pay for the union's day-to-day business operations.

The move addresses two key problems that have hit the UAW hard in recent years: a dramatic decline in membership from auto industry layoffs and weakened finances with the loss of thousands of dues-paying members.

While the change affects a relatively small portion of the union's $914 million strike fund, it shows the UAW is taking steps to plan for its future at a time of unprecedented downsizing in the U.S. auto industry.

The UAW adopted the measures at its 34th Constitutional Convention in Las Vegas, where more than 1,300 delegates from across the country have gathered this week to elect leaders, amend the union's central governing document and pump up members amid challenging times.

With the funding change, the UAW will be able to divert $50 million in strike-funds to its general fund to support union operations. Up to $60 million will be available over the next four years to the UAW's executive board to pay for organizing activities, member education and advertising campaigns that promote the union's positions on health care, trade and other issues.

'We're losing members'

While the constitutional change passed easily, a handful of opponents feared it would weaken the strike fund at a time when the union faces a possible walkout at bankrupt auto supplier Delphi Corp. and that it would give UAW leaders a blank check to spend how they see fit.

But backers stressed that the change was critical, mainly because it dedicates more resources to replenishing union ranks through new organizing efforts.

"We're losing members," said James Kaster, president of UAW Local 1714, which represents workers at General Motors Corp.'s plant in Lordstown, Ohio. "We need that money."

The UAW signed up 66,000 new members in the last four years at auto dealerships, in the health care industry, among auto parts suppliers and on college campuses. But the gains have not been enough to offset losses, particularly in the auto industry. The union's member rolls have fallen from 1.5 million in 1979 to less than 600,000 today.

The situation may get worse before it gets better.

GM and Ford Motor Co. are cutting 60,000 jobs as part of sweeping restructuring efforts at their struggling North American units. Delphi is axing another 20,000 factory jobs as part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, while other industries with UAW-represented workers, such as aerospace, are also shedding workers.

In addition to thinning the UAW's ranks, the job losses have weakened the union's finances, which are heavily dependent on membership dues.

General fund dips

Last year, the UAW's all-purpose general fund dropped to $37 million, down from $65 million four years ago. In response, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said he had to cut the union's administrative staff by 20 percent, close 14 sub-regional offices and curb spending on conferences, air travel and meetings during his first four-year term.

"The fact is," Gettelfinger said Monday, "that a union of 600,000 members can't operate the same way it did years ago as a union of more than a million members."

While some union accounts are shrinking, the UAW's strike insurance fund, which pays workers while on the picket line, is near an all-time high. The fund's balance was $914 million at the end of last year, just shy of its 1993 peak of $916 million.

The strike fund is fed by dues, roughly a third of which are dedicated to the account.

When the strike fund surpasses $550 million, the UAW International and locals receive "rebate" checks to help fund operations. Under the new measure, those rebates will be increased slightly beginning in July. But if the strike fund falls below $500 million, the rebates will be suspended.

Gettelfinger says he doesn't see that happening anytime soon. He is also confident the union can support members if there is a strike at Delphi. The troubled supplier has drawn the ire of its six unions by threatening to impose deep wage cuts if it wins court approval to ax its labor contracts.

"If we have to have a strike at Delphi," Gettelfinger said, answering a delegate's objection, "the strike fund would be in good shape for 153 weeks."

Nearly all delegates liked the idea of directing more money to organizing. With its membership in decline, the UAW in recent years has focused attention on winning members at auto parts suppliers, foreign-owned auto factories in the southern United States and in non-auto sectors, which account for about 40 percent of the union's members.

Bob Roth, director of the UAW Region 1C office, which represents autoworkers in Flint and Lansing, said the union will bounce back with more resources directed at recruiting.

"Organizing," Roth said, "is the bloodline of the UAW."

You can reach Brett Clanton at (313) 222-22612 or


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