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June 30, 2009
DINE: UAW's poor PR hurts its workers
By Philip Dine

Despite all the attention being focused on the automobile sector, despite the importance its survival will assume in coming months and years, the public view of the role of autoworkers and their union in the industry's troubles is surprisingly incomplete and one-sided.

Polls and anecdotal reporting suggest such commonly held beliefs as these: Overpaid autoworkers and power-hungry United Auto Workers leaders have long diminished Detroit's ability to compete. Faced with a deep recession, stubborn UAW members worsen matters by refusing to make concessions. Aggressive union officials, constantly on the attack, prevent auto executives from tackling the daunting problems they face.

This represents bumper-sticker thinking that, with millions of jobs and much of America's remaining industrial capacity at stake, is dangerously misleading -- as we'll see in a minute. But why are such notions the conventional wisdom in the first place? Here's a small example of the larger problem.

A national TV network recently asked me to comment on domestic-content issues and how the UAW defines an American-made car. I called union headquarters in Detroit, figuring a request for some factual information -- no quotes needed, to be used in a manner favorable to the UAW -- would be quick.

Quick, my foot. Three hours later, repeated calls to the press department had clarified only two things: The person I was told to speak with was (ostensibly) still at lunch, and no one else in Solidarity House, as headquarters is dubbed, was authorized to talk to the media.

Finally, the head of another department relented and -- anonymously -- summarized the union's view. Thus armed, I called the network back, but it was too late. Another missed opportunity for the union to get across its perspective at a time when its very future (not to mention that of its members) is at stake.

Let's be clear. If this were some type of atypical lapse, it would not be worth relating; unfortunately, it's not. Multiply it many times over, with many reporters and many variations, and one begins to grasp the damage done by the failure of the UAW, which has long viewed the media with suspicion, to adequately present its perspective.

For all the UAW's merits -- this is a clean, committed, socially conscious union -- its centralized structure has robbed it of speed, dexterity and multiple voices in getting out its message. That's a legacy of former union leader Walter Reuther's understandable efforts 60 years ago to keep communist influence at bay. Long past any legitimate need, this hierarchical approach has been preserved to stifle dissent and control communications.

(If we had time, I'd tell you about being jostled to the edge of a San Diego hotel rooftop some 20 years ago by UAW convention delegates irate over my reporting on internal union divisions. As I'm getting a view of the city I hadn't expected, I'm thinking: "If they really disliked what I wrote this much, wouldn't a simple letter to the editor have sufficed?")

This is more than a PR problem. Even with some improvements by the current leadership, it means the full story of the auto industry's woes doesn't get out. The resulting lack of context and information in the public arena creates scapegoats, promotes union-bashing, affects public opinion and could well -- as the saga unfolds with the Big Three struggling to survive and workers facing pressure for more sacrifices -- influence public policy.

It also places needless hurdles in the path of a struggling union movement because labor's poor media strategies extend far beyond the UAW. Unions often are their own worst enemy in terms of muffling workers' voices, even if they share culpability with journalists ever more prone to reporting on Britney Spears than on the deindustrialization of America.

What would people know if the union made a clear and comprehensive case -- and the media were actually listening?

• UAW-represented autoworkers indeed negotiated good contracts when the Big Three were profitable, bringing millions of people into the middle class. But to attribute the Big Three's woes to these pacts reflects ideology, not analysis. At their height, veteran UAW-represented workers earned roughly $55 in hourly wages and benefits - about $8 more than their non-union counterparts at foreign transplants. Because labor accounts for only 10 percent of the cost of making a car, this differential contributes far less to the industry's problems than, say, management's designing of cars that people don't want.

• More significant are legacy costs; chiefly, retiree health care. Unlike its German, Swedish and Japanese competitors, Detroit pays the price for the lack of national health care. There's irony in the fact that the UAW's sharpest critics tend to strongly oppose national care.

• Over the past few years, well before the current crisis, the UAW and its members made some of the largest concessions in U.S. labor history. New autoworkers earn around $30,000 a year, with pensions also slashed. Local operating agreements - where the rubber hits the road for plant-level managerial flexibility - have been renegotiated.

• As for aggressive unionists thwarting automakers' bids to turn things around, let me introduce UAW Vice President Bob King, who handles Ford matters, and Ford Vice President Martin Mulloy, responsible for labor. At a Labor and Employment Relations Association conference this month in Washington, they vied with each other to tell how UAW-Ford cooperation has helped the company forgo taxpayer money. "We regard our relationship with the union," Mr. Mulloy said, "as a competitive advantage."

But if a tree falls and no one hears it ...

• Philip Dine, author of "State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy and Regain Political Influence," is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.





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