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Bob King, the UAW's president, has said the union has no long-term future if it can't organize southern foreign-car plants. Automakers from Japan, Korea and Germany have 14 assembly plants in the region, including eight built in the last 10 years, a time when Detroit was closing factories.
Yet Dennis Williams, the UAW's secretary-treasurer and likely its next president, says the companies' worries about the union's demise are off-base. He says dues and membership are now on the rise from new hiring by Detroit automakers and recruitment in areas such as casino workers and heavy truck assembly.
More spending cuts also are coming, and the union plans to balance its budget and stop selling assets in the next 2 ½ to 3 years, Williams says. He knows of no talks to merge with another union.
"The UAW can survive a long time," Williams says. "They'll be here far after you and I pass away."
Williams says the UAW will show higher dues revenue when it files a 2013 report with the Labor Department next month.
Still, the union can't fully replace dues paid by longtime workers who retired at $28 or more per hour, says Art Wheaton, an industry expert at the Worker Institute at Cornell University. Lower-tier workers for the UAW start at $15 per hour, although recent raises can make over $19.
"What you're getting per hour to deal blackjack is nowhere near what you're getting per hour as a skilled tradesman at General Motors or Ford," Wheaton says.
There have been merger talks in the past between the UAW and the Steelworkers and Machinists unions, but nothing came of them, Wheaton says.
Spokesmen for both unions say there are no current discussions.
Williams is not giving up on organizing a southern auto plant, saying that the union recently signed up parts-supply and truck-building factories in the region.
And the union on Friday challenged the recent VW vote in Tennessee. In an appeal filed with the National Labor Relations Board, it asserted that "interference by politicians and outside special interest groups" swayed the vote.
The challenge comes days after the top labor representative on VW's supervisory board suggested that the anti-union atmosphere fostered by some southern politicians could lead the company to make future investments elsewhere.
Even without an expansion in the South or into other industries, the UAW is trying to boost its ranks and revenues now that the financial crisis is over and the industry is strong again.
Williams says the union wants more pay for the new hires, and will work with automakers to figure out how to get there while keeping the companies competitive.
But higher pay presents a quandary. If new hires at Ford, GM and Chrysler make more than workers at southern factories, Detroit's cars and trucks will be more expensive and they won't be as competitive. That could threaten union jobs.
In Detroit, workers aren't worried about the VW loss in Tennessee, or the financial pressures on the UAW, says George McGregor, president of a local union office at a factory that makes the Chevrolet Volt electric car. He thinks workers will approve the dues increase, which amounts to about one-half hour of pay per month. And he says the union will be back for another vote at VW.
"We'll try again another day," McGregor says. "It's not going to break the UAW."