Detroit automakers worry about UAW money struggles

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DETROIT (AP) - The United Auto Workers’ membership and dues are down sharply from just six years ago. In another sign of weakness, the union suffered a stunning defeat this month when it tried to organize a Tennessee factory run by labor-friendly Volkswagen.

The rejection, by a close vote, was a major setback in the union’s effort to expand in the South, where non-union, foreign companies such as VW, Nissan and Hyundai are rapidly growing.

But instead of relief, Detroit’s three automakers - Ford, Chrysler and General Motors - are increasingly anxious about the 78-year old union’s future.

For them, it’s a “devil you know” situation. They worry that the 382,000-member UAW could be absorbed by a more hostile union. Such a merger could disrupt a decade of labor-management peace that has helped America’s auto industry survive the financial crisis and emerge much stronger, according to a person with knowledge of executive discussions.

Another union might not be as willing to keep labor costs competitive with overseas automakers, says the person, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are confidential.

Despite talk of a union merger, Gary Chaison, a labor relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., says he doesn’t see the UAW giving up its identity and history by combining with another organization.

“It’s something that the employers always fear,” he says.

Spokesmen for Ford, GM and Chrysler declined comment, and a top UAW official says the automakers’ worries are unfounded.

Even as it struggles, the UAW remains the wealthiest union in the nation, with assets of more than $1 billion at the end of 2012. Officials point to a revived U.S. auto industry and more hiring at UAW-represented factories, moves that have stabilized membership dues that have been falling since 2006.

Still, the union’s loss at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., heightened concerns about how it can grow.

Annual dues collected were down more than 40 percent to $115 million from 2006 to 2012, as the union’s ranks fell by 30 percent. Thousands of members took buyouts and early retirement as Detroit’s auto industry lost billions during the financial crisis and worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Membership has risen slightly since 2009, but dues collected continue to decline.

The union had hoped VW would give it a foothold in the South and help revive its fortunes. Even though the Detroit Three have hired thousands in the past four years as auto sales have recovered, union membership is nowhere near a 1979 peak of 1.5 million. And the new hires are paid only two-thirds of what veteran workers get, keeping dues revenue down. The union agreed to the lower wages and became more cooperative seven years ago to help the companies survive the recession.

As it struggles to reverse declines, the union has been forced to tighten its belt. It cut spending 15 percent from 2006-2012, but still had to sell more than $300 million worth of assets, mainly securities and other investments, to pay operating expenses. Last year alone, the UAW raised more than $47 million by selling assets to balance its budget. The union may even raise dues this year for the first time in 47 years.

“That right there tells you it’s fairly dire,” says Mike Smith, director of the Walter P. Reuther library, an archive of union history at Wayne State University in Detroit.

A weaker UAW is worrisome for American automakers who only recently reached a labor peace with the union after decades of fighting. The peace resulted in lower wages for new hires and in health care concessions that nearly erased a $1,500 difference in production costs per car between U.S. and Japanese automakers.

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