The UAW Can Help the Detroit Three Save Money and Face

Since the Jan. 19, 2009, Current Comment "Goofing Off at Ford: A National Emergency," I have received a number of comments, most of which were complimentary or at least respectful. One commenter in particular asked if I could offer a solution for the problem. It just so happens I have one.

To put it simply, the UAW should announce that GM, Ford, and Chrysler will be allowed to rein in absenteeism, alcohol use and fraud by UAW members. That doesn't mean the UAW should accept an across-the-board, zero-tolerance policy under which employees would be fired for showing up five minutes late. But the UAW should set reasonable standards for its members, and make them stick. Doing so will increase its credibility, both in Detroit and in Washington, D.C.

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While the UAW is required under federal law to represent all its members (and agency fee payers*) fairly, that duty of fair representation does not mean that the UAW must go to the mat for a worker who behaves in a blatantly irresponsible manner. Especially in the current climate, where labor costs (rightly or wrongly!) are seen as a burden for companies that are struggling in the marketplace and in need of government assistance, the UAW could not be faulted for allowing the companies that employ its members to crack down on outrageous abuses of the sort that WDIV camera crews found.

At a minimum, the union should expect its members to exhibit basic honesty; the faking of time records (one of several abuses that WDIV was able to document) should not be tolerated by anyone. The union should also have a strong policy of discouraging the use of alcoholic beverages prior to shifts or during breaks; UAW members who report for work showing outward signs of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs should be let go without protest by the union.

In order to make these standards stick, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger may need to confront officials at various UAW locals who have unwisely come to see the automakers as a resource to be plundered. There are steps that Gettelfinger can take to box in recalcitrant local officials. If the current contracts are renegotiated, Gettelfinger should consider ways to streamline the grievance process, a step that will leave fewer opportunities for delay while allowing workers with legitimate arguments to get a fair hearing.

Solidarity is an important ideal of the UAW; it means that workers work together. Sometimes they must put up a unified front against an employer in order to get fair wages and benefits. But sometimes they must pull together for an employer that is struggling under difficult economic conditions. Even in the best of times neither automakers nor autoworkers can afford habitual absenteeism, heavy alcohol use or dishonesty, and these are not the best of times. The sooner the UAW takes a strong stand, the better it will be for the men and women it represents.

(*An agency fee payer is an individual who works under a union contract, but is not a member of a union. In Michigan such a person is required to pay an "agency fee" in lieu of regular union dues. Allowing for the imposition of agency fees undermines freedom of association, makes unions less accountable to workers, and hinders Michigan's economic recovery. For this reason the Mackinac Center advocates the passage of a right-to-work law that will abolish agency fees and allow individual workers to decide whether or not to support a union.)


Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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