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UAW Chief Seeks to Modernize a 20th Century Institution

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media


The United Auto Workers union, born in the 20th century, wants to remain relevant in the 21st.

For decades, the UAW had an impact on the automotive industry but went beyond that.

UAW leaders such as Walter Reuther, Leonard Woodcock and Douglas Fraser followed the “statesman” model. They weren’t only involved with wages and benefits in the auto industry. They were also active in issues such as civil rights.

More recently, the sheen has come off the UAW. For a period, the successors to the statesmen UAW leaders concerned themselves more with basic financial issues.

UAW presidents such as Owen Bieber, Stephen Yokich, and Ron Gettefinger were more concerned with dollars and cents than with social issues.

During the 21st century, the UAW absorbed major hits to its image.

For example, one UAW president, Dennis Williams, was sentenced in 2021 for embezzling union funds. That was a long fall from the statesman model of Reuther, Woodcock, and Fraser.

To be sure, the statesmen of the UAW never had to deal with the deep inroads that Asian automakers made into the U.S. market. What’s more, the statesmen UAW leaders probably never imagined the challenges presented by Elon Musk and Tesla Inc. and its electric vehicles..

On March 29, the current UAW chief, Ray Curry, made the case why the Detroit-based union remains important. Curry said he plans to run for a full term this year.

“We are the auto workers,” Curry said during a presentation sponsored by the Automotive Press Association. “I expect an (auto) industry that’s strong…I see new opportunities to organize.”

The UAW, like the auto industry generally, is confronting major challenges.

The industry is shifting to electric vehicles. Internal combustion engines (ICE) aren’t going away. But the industry is investing in EVs and going away from ICE vehicles.

One challenge for the UAW: EVs have fewer parts compared with traditional ICE vehicles. Companies such as General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis (which includes the former Chrysler Corp.) are facing major manufacturing changes.

The UAW president projected optimism. “We’re excited,” he said.

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