- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

The Ford Motor Co’s latest round of cuts is another serious blow to organized labor, costing the United Auto Workers as many as 40,000 active members and millions of dollars in lost dues.

But after taking a highly aggressive approach for decades, the UAW is transforming into a less combative, more cooperative organization that may be willing to work closer with U.S. automakers than perhaps at any other time in its history, analysts say.

“I think the UAW has finally wakened up to the fact that the whole thing is likely to disappear if they don’t start to cooperate a little bit,” said John Wolkonowicz, an analyst with Global Insight, an automotive research and consulting firm. “In some ways they may be working together now.”

Ford yesterday announced a new restructuring plan that includes cutting more than 10,000 additional salaried jobs, offering buyouts to all of its 75,000 U.S. hourly workers and shutting down two more plants than the 14 previously announced.

The plan, hammered out with cooperation from the union, was praised by UAW officials — even though it would reduce Ford’s North American work force by almost a third.

“Once again, our members are stepping up to make hard choices under difficult circumstances,” UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said. “Now it’s Ford Motor CO’s responsibility to lead this company in a positive direction.

Under the terms of the agreement, no UAW member will be forced to take a buyout — a concession demanded by the union.

“We remain deeply concerned about Ford’s loss of market share, and committed to working together” with Ford, said UAW Vice President Bob King, who directs the union’s Ford Department. “Even with all the problems in the auto industry, UAW members at Ford will continue to have a voice in their own destiny.”

The UAW has lost 900,000 members since the 1970s, and the potential loss of another 40,000 jobs could cost the union millions of dollars in membership dues.

The union collected about $206 million in 2004, down from about $214 million the previous year, said Martin Payson, a lawyer with the Jackson Lewis law firm, which represents management in labor disputes.

The UAW has realized it must soften its approach in an increasingly competitive and nonunion industry, said Charlie Hughes, former head of North American operations for Land Rover and Mazda.

“There was probably a time in the history of labor where that was helpful, but in a day and age where you have so much competition … then both labor and management have to pull together,” Mr. Hughes said.

He added he expects contract negotiations with the UAW and Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, which expire next year, to go smoother than previous negotiations.

Much of the union’s change in attitude can be attributed to Mr. Gettelfinger, many analysts say.

“Ron Gettelfinger has brought a new enlightenment to the union — he sees the handwriting on the wall,” Mr. Wolkonowicz said. “His goal now maybe has shifted from getting as much as possible [from the automakers] to preserving as many jobs as possible.”

Mr. Gettelfinger was re-elected as the union president when he ran unopposed in June.

The UAW has failed to attract membership at automotive plants established in the United States by Asian companies. And while their reluctance is due in part to an unwillingness to pay union dues, which can run $50 a week or more, it’s not the only reason, analysts say.

“Workers want to be part of a winning team, and the more factions you have in the workplace, the more names and labels you put it, the more difficult it is to be a single team.” Mr. Hughes said. “The [automakers] winning today have a lot of focus, and that focus has to run through the whole organization.”

Some say the union’s less-harsh stance may come too late to save it from irrelevance.

“You’re going to see the UAW as an entity engaged in serious soul-searching as to what it wants to be and what’s it’s capable of being,” Mr. Payson said. “It will be a Herculean effort to turn this around.”

The UAW, which also represents some health care and government workers, will be forced to recruit more nonautomotive workers if it is to survive, Mr. Payson said.

“Three years from now, what we call the UAW is going to be something significantly different than it is today,” he said.

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