Auto Workers Union Faces Growing Pressures

THE United Automobile Workers Union is still shrinking.

Cutbacks by Ford, Chrysler, and other employers forced the UAW to downsize during the 1980s. Its Canadian members split off to form their own union during that time.

The union's active membership is down more than a third since 1979.

More cuts are on the way. The recent management shake-up at General Motors Corporation suggests the company will move quickly to eliminate unprofitable units. Analyst Dan Luria of the Industrial Technology Institute forecasts the company will have to trim 106,000 jobs by 1995. That would mean GM would employ only 385,000 American workers - two-thirds the number it employed in 1979.

UAW leaders know the cuts are coming. UAW vice president Stephen Yokich is working with GM on an early-retirement program for 5,000 to 7,000 workers.

But it's not clear the union intends the kind of fundamental restructuring that would make it a positive, flexible force in General Motors' recovery.

"The UAW is not very together within GM," says David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan. "You had locals that were working almost as company unions. You had others that were militant and wanted to go back to the 1950s."

The troubles at the UAW not only reflect the loss of market share by the Big Three to foreign-owned auto companies. They also result from the big improvements in manufacturing techniques and management methods now taking place in auto plants and other factories in the United States. These are expected to force major changes on American institutions.

"There are certainly some good things going on," says John Jackson, professor of business administration at the University of Michigan. "The place I have real concerns is: Can we handle the politics of that [transition]?"

Not in the near future, says Richard Florida, professor of management and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. It took nearly 50 years for the profound changes wrought by mass manufacturing to become institutionalized in US government policy (Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s).

"We're in 1890," Professor Florida says. The new manufacturing shift - from mass production to flexible, customizable production - is years away from transforming US policies. Union's role changing?

"Unions can be quite helpful ... if they realize that they will only get paid if they are part of a successful company," says Bill Davidow, co-author of a new book, "The Virtual Corporation." But "if the purpose is to address grievances and get a bigger share of profits, I don't think that's a big enough charter for unions. Ultimately, they will vanish."

"Normally, the union restructures almost as a reaction to the company restructuring," says Douglas Fraser, former UAW president and now professor of labor studies at Wayne State University. But these are not normal times.

The success of some UAW local unions in cooperative ventures - the Saturn car, for example - has opened some eyes, Mr. Cole says. "Increasingly they do realize the situation that they are in. Real job-security is provided only if the company has a long-term future."

Harry Katz of Cornell University disagrees: "For those kinds of experiments to amount to anything, you need the union to aggressively promote them. The union has decided to sit on the sidelines and negotiate the best severance package." Militant faction in UAW

UAW leaders aren't being stubborn. They just face different pressures. One is an internal UAW protest movement, called New Directions, that has accused the leadership of selling out to the companies. Analysts and outside observers agree that this militant faction is on the decline.

Another reason for union skittishness is that they've been burned before.

"The problem we find with too many of the American companies is that they say they want better cooperation on the factory floor," but on their own terms, says Stan Marshall, UAW vice president and director of the union's Chrysler department. "If you say, `I can do your job and mine' then, hey, they listen to you! But if you say: `That part doesn't fit because the engineering department messed up,' then they say: `Well, make it work.' "

"The real challenge is beyond the union and the management," Mr. Marshall adds.

Next year, the UAW and domestic automakers will sit down to conduct what promises to be a bruising round of contract talks. One of the biggest battles will be over health-care costs. Union members don't want any cuts in their benefits. Automakers argue the plans are too onerous.

The only long-term solution, Marshall says, is government-sponsored health care.

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