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Is UAW Taking Right Path to Regain Clout? : Labor: Auto workers blame their troubles on a hostile political climate toward labor and are trying hard to elect Bill Clinton. Critics say new organizing strategies are needed.


SAN DIEGO — Bob Harlow, president of United Auto Workers Local 1776, said the stress level is so high at General Motors' assembly plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., that members have been dying at the rate of one a week.

The reason, said Harlow, is the company's plans--first announced in February--to close the facility where 2,400 union workers build the Chevy Caprice and the Buick Roadmaster. In all, 21 plants--some not yet identified--will be closed soon, spreading anxiety throughout the UAW's ranks.

Even union members outside the auto industry are worried. Four thousand UAW workers were laid off at McDonnell Douglas, the Long Beach aircraft manufacturer, in the last 18 months, and more layoffs could be in the offing.

It is little wonder that fear and loathing of the future were much on the minds of about 2,000 union delegates who gathered four days last week in San Diego for their national convention.

While it is clear that the UAW is hurting, there was little soul searching at the convention amid the booming renditions of "Solidarity Forever," festive red, white and blue balloons and ringing endorsements of the incumbent top leadership.

Almost unanimously, union leaders blame a hostile political climate toward labor rather than faulty union strategies for the UAW's decade-long decline in membership and political clout. Their most pressing task, they say, is to turn out the vote for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Given substantial support for prospective independent candidate Ross Perot among the rank and file, that may not be easy.

But even if the union's 870,000 members heed their leaders' call at the ballot box, labor economists and some within the UAW say the union's future will depend as much on finding new organizing strategies as it does on electing more sympathetic politicians.

Unless the union can carve out a new role for itself--as the old-line manufacturers whose workers it represents transform themselves in the name of international competition--critics say the UAW is at risk of becoming increasingly irrelevant both in the political arena and at the bargaining table.

The Big Three U.S. auto makers have shed close to one-third of their hourly payroll over the last decade, as they ceded market share to their Japanese competitors and struggled to match their productivity.

At the same time, employment among independent parts manufacturers--where UAW organizing has been far less successful--has grown by 10%, and thousands of auto production jobs have moved to Mexico.

As a result, only 70% of U.S. auto industry workers were unionized in 1990, compared to 86% in 1978. With GM in the throes of a massive downsizing, and the shift in auto employment to non-union suppliers and cheaper Mexican labor accelerating, that number may shrink to 50% by the end of the decade, according to Congress' Office of Technology Assessment.

As the UAW's hold on auto industry labor deteriorates, so does its ability to impose wage and benefit demands on the industry's employers.

"For a long time, the UAW was able to insulate auto workers from the erosion in living standards that most workers have been experiencing since the 1970s," said Steve Herzenberg, a researcher at the OTA. "Now the UAW is simply not powerful enough to do that anymore."

Ironically, union leaders say, life on the economic island created by lucrative union contracts has encouraged union members to vote for those most likely to destroy it.

"Our people are so used to their benefits, they've forgotten where they come from," said UAW Vice President Stan Marshall. "They've started voting with the rich."

As union officials from across the country report a healthy show of support among their members for Texas billionaire Ross Perot, the top leadership has repeatedly emphasized the importance of rallying their troops to Clinton's campaign.

"For the UAW, politics has always been a critical battleground," UAW President Owen Bieber told delegates last week. "But never has it been more important than it is this year."

Delegates here said they planned to shower their members with information on the dangers of Perot's programs and the benefits of Clinton's as soon as they returned home. Coy Click, a UAW bargainer from Grand Prairie, Tex., said he already stopped a petition drive by the union's employees at the LTV plant there to get Perot on the ballot.

"We quelled that," Click said. "No threats, of course. We just explained what his positions really were."

Clinton has attracted the union's support despite his backing of the pending free-trade agreement with Mexico, which the UAW vehemently opposes. UAW leaders say they hope to change his mind on the treaty, which they believe will cost American auto workers thousands of jobs.

But critics say the clash between Clinton's and the UAW's view on such a crucial issue simply underlines the union's need to spend more time organizing workers.

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