- - Monday, March 3, 2014

After their recent defeat at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tenn., plant, is it over for the United Auto Workers? Don’t be too sure.

Yes, the union’s loss of a unionization vote at VW’s Passat plant in Tennessee produced much bad publicity, given that conditions were ideal for the UAW — the company wanted the union to win. Many observers claim the defeat is a turning point that marks inevitable decline.

However, the turning point may not spell decline, but only transformation. Yes, the portion of UAW’s membership coming from the auto industry will likely shrink, and over time the union may become unrecognizable to those familiar only with its current form.

The UAW’s future may lie in fields far from those in its name — fields where employers are particularly vulnerable to political pressure, such as casinos, colleges and health care, and among recipients of government assistance.

As George Will observes, the U.S. auto industry is actually two industries, “the UAW-organized one” that was desperate for a government bailout in 2009, and “the other industry, located in the South and elsewhere,” where American workers make 30 percent of the vehicles Americans purchase, which “did not need rescuing because it does not have UAW presence.”

Between 2006 and 2012, the UAW lost 30 percent of its members and 40 percent of its dues. That mirrors the decline of unions in general, which have lost 80 percent of their share of private-sector workers since the 1950s.

Today, about half of union members are government employees, a sector where unions were almost nonexistent in the 1950s.

Organizations and movements must adapt to survive. Today, private-sector unions are moving away from representing workers at workplaces and instead becoming one more organized political pressure group.

For example, in many cities, one sees efforts to unite fast-food workers so as to pressure the city to raise the minimum wage, restrict working conditions and otherwise achieve goals once accomplished by unions’ collective-bargaining contracts.

This is why, after Chattanooga, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said union progress requires stronger ties with “every progressive group.”

Today, Americans are adjusting to an Obama-ized, low-growth economy that downplays, or even ridicules, entrepreneurship. (“You didn’t build that!”)

Increasingly, the key to wealth will be the ability to “game” the political system, garnering subsidies for one’s own business or industry while using regulations to hurt competitors.

Unions’ success will depend on their ability to elect friends, to fill the courts and regulatory bureaucracy with allies, and to use the media to pressure businesses into capitulating to their demands.

The UAW will be at the forefront of this change. Yes, lower dues revenue has forced it to make budget cuts, but it still sits on an estimated $1 billion in assets and, most importantly, has decades of experience turning political struggle into economic power.

It will continue to be influential among the “legacy” automakers, now largely dependent on government largesse (e.g., subsidies for “green” cars and bailouts).

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