UAW Sets Sights on Other Industries

The United Auto Workers had 1.5 million members 20 years ago, but now membership stands below 600,000. The union is hoping to build its ranks by reaching beyond auto workers and representing those in industries such as health care and education.

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The United Auto Workers had a million and a half members 20 years ago. Now, union membership is below is 600,000. In the third part of our weeklong series on the auto industry, NPR's Celeste Headlee reports on how the UAW hopes to build its ranks by reaching beyond autoworkers.

CELESTE HEADLEE: Ron Patenaude is the president of UAW Local 2322 in Holyoke, Massachusetts. His local represents more than 3,600 workers from a whole host of industries.

Mr. RON PATENAUDE (UAW Local 2322): Health and Human Service workers, day care centers, such as Springfield Day Nursery.

HEADLEE: If you noticed, Patenaude didn't mention any autoworkers. And in fact, his branch of the United Auto Workers Union doesn't represent a single employee from the manufacturing industries. Steward Acuff of the AFL-CIO says welcome to the future.

Mr. STEWARD ACUFF (AFL-CIO): The economy is growing in different directions and it's growing away from the traditional foundation of the American labor movement, which is manufacturing and heavy industry.

HEADLEE: And that trend started quite sometime ago. It's been decades since the Steelworkers Union had to start branching out in order to find new members, and the Teamsters have been very innovative. Their members worked for the airlines, bottled fruit juices, and even sew costumes for movies.

Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan, says organized labor is rolling with the punches and learning how to survive in spite of vanishing manufacturing jobs.

Dr. ROLAND ZULLO (University of Michigan): The death of unions have been greatly exaggerated. As long as there's capitalism, I think there's going to be labor unions. The question is whether or not we have a society that allows workers to form unions or whether we have a society that makes it very difficult for them to form unions.

HEADLEE: What do we have right now?

Dr. ZULLO: We have one that's very difficult, especially for workers in the private sector in industries that are susceptible to outsourcing.

HEADLEE: And that's what the UAW and other unions are looking for - trades that can't be outsourced, like health care and higher education and bartending.

Richard Devlin is the president of the Midwest Bartenders School. Every year, his school trains about 40 UAW members who are looking to diversify or are concerned about losing their jobs.

Mr. RICHARD DEVLIN (President, Midwest Bartenders School): Bartending is a recession-proof industry. You know, every time you turn around, you know, the worst the economy gets, you know, unfortunately, people drink more, they go out.

HEADLEE: The entertainment and hospitality industries seem to be fertile ground for the UAW. Joyce Lartig(ph) represents dealers, cage cashiers and slot technicians at Detroit's three casinos. She is the president of UAW Local 7777. She says it's taken some adjustment to work side by side with the UAW.

Ms. JOYCE LARTIG (UAW Local 7777): We had a lot of hurdles to get over, and the learning curve for both - for management as well as the union, because there are some things that occur, you know, in our eight hours that others may not even think.

HEADLEE: This year, the UAW also won the right to represent employees at Bally's, Caesars, and Trump Plaza Hotel in Atlantic City. And Roland Zullo says there are good reasons why these workers would choose to join the UAW rather than form their own specialized union.

Dr. ZULLO: Although there's some advantage to being a union which specializes in an industry, the process of forming a union and then bargaining and getting a decent contract, there's quite a few sort of universal concepts that apply across all different occupation types.

HEADLEE: But the UAW's recruitment efforts are not always entirely successful. In the auto industry the union has been unable to get a toehold in the plants of foreign automakers.

But Roland Zullo says that doesn't mean the UAW doesn't have an influence there.

Dr. ZULLO: Honda, Toyota and so forth maintain decent wages and benefits for their employees, in part out of the threat that the UAW will come in and organize those units. That's what we call in the business the threat effect of unionization.

HEADLEE: Union officials say the future of the UAW no longer depends on the auto industry. As the UAW heads to the bargaining table with the big three automakers this week, a separate team of negotiators is gearing up for tough contract talks with the Detroit casinos on the 30th.

Celeste Headlee, NPR News, Detroit.

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