This fall, the United Auto Workers union launched a "Build Buy USA" digital campaign to encourage Americans to buy domestically made products. It's an idea that resonates with many Americans, including me. As a 21-year autoworker at Ford Motor Company, I couldn't agree more with the campaign's core principle.
But it's ironic coming from the UAW, which has played an active role in sending so many good-paying American jobs overseas.
No one denies the UAW's early achievements for workers, but these worker benefits and protections have long since become customary, and many are even protected by law. Today, after numerous rejections by workers, the UAW finds itself scrambling to find meaning and relevance.
With good wages and working conditions met, in recent decades, the UAW has used its power to pursue contract demands that benefit the union's bottom line — many times at the expense of workers.
There are no shortages of object lessons. Right now in Grand Rapids, Mich., UAW leadership has said it would rather see a Dematic production plant close — with hundreds of jobs potentially shipped to Mexico — rather than give ground on their contract demands. The president of UAW Local 1485 was shockingly callous: "If the company decides to close, the union would support it at this point."
North of the border, a strike continues at General Motors' CAMI assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ontario. Employees in the plant are on their fourth week of a strike that has sent ripples as far away as Flint, Mich. and Spring Hill, Tenn., where U.S. workers who produce parts for SUVs have faced layoffs. The Canadian autoworkers union is pressing for job security guarantees popularized by the UAW that would force GM to provide work, even in the absence of customer demand.
One analyst at the Center for Automotive Research noted the predictable consequences of these guarantees when tried by the UAW in the U.S.: "Carmakers ended up inventing make-work projects … some ended up being sent into communities to do things such as mow the lawns of churches."
Today's UAW-Ford contract is roughly 1,300 pages and still filled with crippling work rules that can hurt the company's competitiveness. It also lessens the chances of retaining jobs here in the United States, much less attracting new ones. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it's not clear that UAW has learned its lesson.
Not surprisingly, non-union American autoworkers, concerned about their own employment prospects, have rejected the UAW's attempts at expansion. This summer, workers at a Nissan plant in Mississippi voted against UAW representation by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio. Millions of dollars were spent courting workers who clearly wanted no relationship with them.
"With the UAW, all you've got to do is look at their history," said Tony Hobson, a forklift driver at the Nissan plant. That history is not always pretty. In addition to its contributions to business closures and job losses, there are also unfortunate accounts of fraud and financial corruption.
If UAW officials want to keep jobs here in the U.S., they should adopt the same spirit of the "Build Buy USA" campaign internally. That spirit encourages wise fiscal spending and acknowledges freedom of choice — like choosing whether or not to be represented by a union. That policy would go a long way to promote future job growth, instead of continuing to force manufacturers to say, "Bye-bye, USA."
Terry Bowman is a 20-year UAW-Ford autoworker.
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