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October 20, 2005

What Makes Unions Strong?

Let's be clear about one thing.  The very fact that General Motors is negotiating with the UAW over health benefits reflects why unions matter-- because in the rest of corporate America, almost 20% of employers have dropped coverage altogether in the last decade, adding to the 40% that weren't providing health insurance before that.

And the UAW is still one of the strongest unions out there, even if the economic challenges they face are equally strong.  A lot of analysts are positively schizophrenic on this fact.  Take Daniel Gross at Slate, who criticizes GM for not slashing benefits more since, "GM doesn't face a strong union."

Except it does.  The UAW has used a series of disciplined strikes to periodically cripple GM in the last decade, a reminder to the company that they couldn't unilaterally make decisions.

As Gross admits later in the piece:

A strike, even for a week or two, would prove devastating. It would halt production and screw up the just-in-time delivery system.
What makes a strong union is one that has the discipline among members to strategically defend members interests.  And the UAW has for seventy years done that year after year, not always perfectly, but in a way that has immeasurably improved the lives of their members.

If the UAW has had a weakness, it's that the union hasn't figured out to leverage that strategy to organize new Japanese auto transplants.  But the fact that UAW members are worrying about paying a few copays as the rest of corporate America has been completely dumping its health care responsibilities is nothing to sneeze at.

Posted by Nathan at October 20, 2005 08:59 AM