The United Auto Workers: Vanguard or Rearguard?

The United Auto Workers: Vanguard or Rearguard?

John Barnard’s American Vanguard: the United Auto Workers During the Reuther Years, 1935-1970, and Jonathan Cutler’s Labor’s Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism

American Vanguard:
the United Auto Workers
During the Reuther Years, 1935-1970
by John Barnard
Wayne State University Press, 2004
607 pp $34.95

Labor’s Time:
Shorter Hours, the UAW, and
the Struggle for American Unionism
by Jonathan Cutler
Temple University Press, 2004 230 pp
$19.95 paper $59.50 cloth

Quick quiz: Who is the president of the United Auto Workers union? Today, not twenty-five or forty years ago. You’re stumped, right? But when this magazine began in the mid-1950s, every subscriber knew the answer to that question. Dissent founders Irving Howe and B. J. Widick’s first book was The UAW and Walter Reuther. And when the Dissent editorial board sat around to discuss the future of the labor movement, its members were really talking about the future of the UAW and what its celebrated president might or might not do. Indeed, if you were a political person in the mid-twentieth-century United States, you had to have an opinion-hostile, prodding, disappointed, celebratory-about the UAW and its strategic goals. For people on the left this was the domestic equivalent of the old “Russian Question.” The fate of the UAW was too important to be left to trade unionists alone.

The UAW’s current president, Ron Gettelfinger, may or may not be a fine union leader. It’s hard to know because the UAW no longer casts an economic, political, or imaginative shadow across the nation. Walter Reuther once called it the “vanguard in America,” but today, if there is a union that aspires to that role, it is the Service Employees International Union, which is organizing so many immigrant workers, shaking up the health-care industry, prodding the Democrats leftward, and mobilizing a new generation of radical youth. The UAW can’t do that job anymore: at 650,000 members, it enrolls less than half the number that paid dues twenty-five years ago. It is now the sixth largest union in the United States, down from the number one spot it held during much of Reuther’s presidential tenure, which ended in 1970.

And perhaps more important, the auto union is losing its capacity to set wage-and-benefit standards for millions of workers who still work in an industry that remains central to the American political economy. Because of the UAW’s inability to organize either the Japanese or German “transplants” or the many parts plants that play such a vital role in the auto production stream, the union now represents less than half of all domestic auto workers. This figure does not count much of the lower wage labor embodied in imports. Together, these facts spell the end for high-wage, pattern-setting collective bargaining with the “Big Three” (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler), which was the very hallmark of automobile industry unionism ...