- - 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).

It will expand in the casino business, which is heavily regulated. Casinos will partner with the UAW to take advantage of the union’s political clout. (For example, in the Mulhall case recently before the courts, casino management agreed to unionize in return for a union’s help in passing a slot-machine referendum.)

Many casinos are run by Indian tribes that lack business experience and prize “labor peace.” Gambling is also an area where some unions’ traditional links to organized crime are particularly useful.

The UAW will also expand into the health care industry, now increasingly under government control. Health care businesses will find it very useful to have unions in their corner.

Providers of home-based care, many of them paid partially or fully by government programs, will be brought into the UAW. When Jennifer Granholm was Michigan’ governor, she did unions’ bidding by concocting a shell corporation to serve as the employer of these persons; then, she declared them state employees and called a unionization election conducted by mail.

As labor expert Mallory Factor observes, the vast majority of “workers” didn’t know they were being unionized. Michigan home child-care provider Peggy Mashke explained, “I received a notice in the mail from the UAW congratulating me on my new membership. I was kind of shocked.”

Another UAW target: colleges and universities, where leftist orthodoxy rules. Recently, almost 6,000 “post docs” — newly minted PhDs working as research assistants and the like — organized under the UAW, bringing the union’s membership among higher-education personnel to some 40,000.

Some commentators have declared the UAW near-dead after Chattanooga. However, the UAW is implacable and adaptable. As the United Something-or-other Workers, it may be with us for generations to come.

Terrence Scanlon is president of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C.