DETROIT — More than a decade and a half after the Japanese started changing the rules in the American car market, the 1.2-million-member United Auto Workers union is still having trouble facing the future.
Historically a trend setter on collective-bargaining issues for organized labor, the UAW has been agonizingly slow to deal with the import challenge threatening the jobs of its members.
Now, the UAW is on the labor movement's front lines in trying to wrestle with the most difficult dilemma facing unions in the 1980s--how to find new ways to give job security to workers whose jobs are threatened by cheap labor in the Third World, while at the same time obtaining the traditional wage-and-benefit increases that unionized workers in America have come to expect.
Many industry executives and outside labor analysts believe that the UAW is at a key crossroads in its history, and must choose between two starkly different paths: it must decide whether to moderate its economic demands and agree to greater flexibility in management-labor relations on the shop floor in order to avert a wholesale move offshore by the domestic auto makers, or continue as it always has and face the possibility of becoming a union representing a small number of highly paid workers in a shrinking domestic industry.
Traditionalists in Control
For the moment, observers say, the traditionalists are firmly in control. And, they say, the union's adherence to a hard-line stance signals a defeat for the union's leading progressive, UAW Vice President Donald Ephlin, director of the union's big General Motors department.
It also reflects a victory for the more conventional thinking of UAW President Owen Bieber, the union politician who defeated Ephlin in the crucial 1983 race to name a successor to former UAW President Douglas Fraser, widely regarded as a leading labor figure of the past quarter century.
To some labor specialists in academia, the growing stature of Bieber and the increasing isolation within the union of Ephlin exemplifies organized labor's general move away from the more accommodating stance it took during the last recession.
And, after nearly 40 years in the union, Ephlin may now be more popular at Harvard and Stanford than inside Solidarity House, the UAW's Detroit headquarters.
Even though he was Fraser's personal choice to be his successor (until Fraser counted heads among members of the union's executive board, which held the key nominating election, and found Ephlin had virtually no support) his views on collective bargaining are unpopular inside the union, where he has been tagged as being too pro-management.
Dealt Serious Blow
His reputation inside the union was also dealt a serious blow in early 1984 when an internal GM document that indicated that the company hoped to manipulate Ephlin to win his support for more accommodating union policies was leaked to the press.
Now, knowledgeable sources say, Ephlin has few, if any, close allies who share his views on the ruling executive board, and the perception inside the UAW, whether fair or not, is that Bieber is tougher on management than Ephlin.
"It's hard to get too far out in front of the membership, and Ephlin has suffered more than anybody politically because of that," one high-level staffer says. "He's tried to be innovative and do some things that could help us avoid getting beat up (by imports) and he's taken a beating for it."
Meanwhile, Bieber and many other leaders in the UAW, pointing to the record profits the domestic auto makers have posted since the recession and the huge bonuses being paid to the top auto executives, still refuse to believe that the union has to make bargaining trade-offs between job security and big wage hikes.
They argue that American unions can't match the low wages paid in South Korea or Taiwan, so the import problem must be dealt with through trade legislation fashioned in Washington, not through contract concessions at the bargaining table in Detroit.
To be sure, Bieber and other union leaders have allowed real progress to take place in labor-management relations on the factory floor. Despite internal pressure, Bieber's administration has not reduced its commitment
to such things as joint employee-involvement programs, which have been criticized by many local union leaders for reducing the union's power inside the plants.
But Bieber and his aides remain hesitant to go too far in working with the companies for fear of losing independence to management.
"I don't think I'm a died-in-the-wool traditionalist, but I've also learned over the years to insist that I see something more than just talk from the other side of the table," Bieber says.
Pressure From Militants
The leadership also doesn't want to appear too vulnerable to the militants on the union's left, who yearn for a return to the confrontational style of the 1960s, and who would love to be able to charge the Bieber administration with being soft.