Clericals Say UAW Should Practice What It Preaches

Clerical workers at United Auto Workers headquarters in Detroit are protesting layoffs that will take effect Friday. They picketed this month carrying signs that read “What about shared sacrifice?” and “Justice for ALL workers.”

The 35 layoffs will hit all clerical or maintenance workers with less than 14 years’ seniority.

In a statement, UAW President Bob King counters that “we have a fiduciary responsibility to our dues-paying members and cannot carry more clerical staff than justified by the size of our membership.”

The UAW has shrunk from 1.5 million members in 1979 to less than 400,000 last year. Its numbers are now rising somewhat, thanks to the automakers’ current good fortunes, and could increase by 10,000 at the Big 3 through 2015, according to a management-oriented think tank.

Audrey McKenna, vice president of Office and Professional Employees Local 494, says OPEIU understands the need for fiscal responsibility but not why all the sacrifices are asked of clerical workers—the lowest-paid employees. Higher-paid international representatives and administrators are not being laid off, she noted.

McKenna points to office and cafeteria remodeling at the headquarters and the hiring of many non-union “consultants”—including relatives of top administrators—for the union’s planned organizing drives in Southern auto plants. “They say our local doesn't have the proper skill set but these young kids do,” McKenna said.

Local 494 says King, the son of a labor-relations manager at Ford, has turned a deaf ear to its offer to avoid layoffs by having its members work on organizing drives and by in-sourcing work such as grounds maintenance and scanning.

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McKenna said OPEIU filed unfair labor practice charges because the UAW has not responded to its requests for information on new staff, including consultants, hired in the last year.

The clerical workers took concessions amounting to $4.5 million in 2010 and then gave up sick days and agreed to work 2.5 hours longer each week at the same pay. Representatives who service locals also took concessions, which were later restored. Administrators have not made givebacks.

“We are only a small part of the UAW’s financial picture, yet are bearing an unequal burden of sacrifice,” read a union statement.

The UAW arranged for laid-off clerical workers to be tested for factory jobs at the Detroit 3 automakers, where the starting wage is now $15.78. It offered generous early retirement packages and buyouts, with up to two years at reduced pay. But not enough workers took the offers—preferring to keep their jobs that pay upwards of $60,000 per year.

“They are good-wage jobs,” McKenna said. “That’s why we want to keep them.”

One laid-off worker who asked not to be named said the UAW’s handling of its employees has long been “dysfunctional from a management perspective and from a worker’s perspective. They have carried the OPEIU unit in a dysfunctional way, so now they’re trying to fix it in a worse dysfunctional way.

“Bob King is always talking about labor-management cooperation. If they wanted to establish that model of cooperation they could be working with us.”

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.