Issues With Unions Highlighted in Chrysler UAW Workers' Fight on Facebook

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Automotive, Public Policy

We couldn’t help but click on the recent spate of articles about the  UAW Chrysler Talks Facebook page, and how the union is using social media to facilitate discussion over the new four-year contract with Chrysler that its workers just voted to ratify. (Although, the skilled workers did not according to the Detroit Free Press, under the new contract “the company will eliminate 27 classifications such [as] brickmason and cement finisher, furnace repairer, and carpenter; this would make the Big Three more competitive with Asian and German auto companies, said Art Schwartz, a former GM labor negotiator and president of Labor and Economics Associates, to the paper.) Chrysler is the last of the Big Three to come to an agreement with the UAW.

The first great headline I came across, “Autoworkers union grapples with social media, from the Financial Times, conjures images of an assembly line worker fuming, trying futilely to type a Tweet on a smartphone screen as he/she stamps another door or hood for a Chrysler 300-series sedan; or a plant supervisor wrestling a laptop with the Facebook homepage on it, trying to pin it to the ground. Worse yet, it conjures a dystopian scene in a local union hall, with rows of brothers and sisters in chairs not standing and discussing, but silently sitting, typing status updates furiously.

Indeed, in the words of Bradford Wernle of Automotive News, “The union hall isn’t just across the street from the plant anymore; it’s right there on your smartphone.

But to more important matters: the reporting should center on the fact that the union may not appear as “transparent as possible to its voting members, and that the democratic platform of Facebook (say what you will about it) has brought the union’s operations into the disinfecting sunlight, to paraphrase Justice Louis D. Brandeis. Turns out the Facebook page’s administrator took down posts revealing some locals’ voting results, citing that waiting for the final vote tally was the way to go, according to the Automotive News article.

That raises the question, is it better for the UAW to be transparent or tight-lipped in this case? Surely, this social media angle has caused much more of a firestorm than it should on its face, it’s simply a large and fervent conversation that’s gone viral. So is that helpful or harmful for unions like the UAW? And is it helpful or harmful for the companies that employ their workers?

Perhaps a more essential question is this: is continued lobbying for ever-greater benefits above and beyond what’s reasonable paramount to collectively ensuring the economic health of the company employing you in the first place? (The issue, admittedly, lies more with benefits and bonuses, not wages leaving veteran Ford production workers’ base wage the same for eight years, as Reuters reports, sounds a bit stingy.) As the FT article states, Chrysler is the “most financially fragile of the three (Detroit-based automakers). Isn’t it in everyone’s best interest for the company to do well, and not get bogged down with costs it cannot sustain?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether these contemporary quibbles truly warrant the massive amounts of time, effort and space necessary physical or digital to allow them to play out. After the social network discussions had gained critical mass, the UAW thanked everyone for their opinions, according to the FT, and posted this: “We would like to urge all members to show that solidarity, both privately and publicly, is our best tool in the fight against corporate greed. When it comes down to it, which party in the UAW-Chrysler talks is the greedier one? Case in point: why, exactly, are retirees deserving of Christmas bonuses?

One thing is certain: now that Facebook has fragmented the powerful UAW leaders’ ability to act as one large front with one media voice by allowing the emotionally fervent discussion of its individual members to reach the outside world, the union’s dirty laundry in the form of its negotiating and voting process — can never be put back into the hamper. (The same has already held true for US politics.)

Of course, this post could be rightfully perceived as a one-off rant; any and all facts and opinions responding to the above musings are more than welcome especially as they pertain to the carmakers’ future economic health, and by extension, metals activity and prices. Please leave a comment!

–Taras Berezowsky

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