Union density remains historically low for a reason

The New Year launched full of promise and hope for workers around the country. Very rarely has the workforce witnessed such powerful economic optimism of continued low unemployment and wage growth. Job-killing regulations are going away, families are receiving more of their money in their paychecks, and many companies are paying windfall bonuses.

For organized labor, the future seems stuck in reverse. This was evident in data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which showed that union membership remains stuck at an all-time historic low of 10.7 percent.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the auto industry, where I’ve worked on the line at Ford Motor Company for over 20 years. In that time, I’ve seen the company prosper and I’ve also seen it struggle-particularly in the wake of the Great Recession in 2009. Fortunately, Ford is well-positioned in the marketplace.

I can’t say the same for the United Autoworkers Union (UAW) that’s the exclusive representative of me and my fellow employees. The UAW has recently struggled to make gains in the auto industry, which has historically been the union’s lifeblood. It suffered a series of costly organizing losses, most recently at a Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., and at the Fuyao Glass plant outside of Dayton, Ohio. These votes weren’t even close, with workers in both cases rejecting union representation by a 2-to-1 margin. To boost its numbers, the UAW has been forced to turn its attention to graduate students, casino workers, and other less-traditional sectors that now represent roughly 40 percent the union’s membership.

In response to these trends, one industry observer told the Detroit Free Press that the union has “lost its influence and lacks a clear mission.”

Sorely lacking a respectable public image, the union is desperate for good news that just doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon. A widening FBI corruption investigation into training centers that the union managed with the Big Three automakers has implicated top union officials. Money that was earmarked for worker training or charitable purposes was instead diverted to provide high-priced perks for union and company leadership. The scandal was described by the Detroit Free Press as a “sophisticated money-laundering scheme.”

In an environment like this, you’d think a clean slate of new executives would be necessary for the union to rebuild their standing with current and future workers. Instead, powerful union insiders recently opted for the status quo. One of the UAW leaders who the FBI is interested in as part of its investigation-UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada-was re-nominated for her current position. Another, Gary Casteel, was involved in the union’s organizing loss in Mississippi.

It defies belief to think that the only options the union has to provide leadership among the union’s ranks of 400,000 people are the executives who’ve presided over the organizing losses and corruption scandals we are witnessing.

The UAW thrives financially in many states thanks to a business model that forces workers to accept it as the exclusive representative in the workplace. For decades, it was able to force donations into its coffers from people who simply want a job, and redirect that money to both political and social causes they may not support. My home state of Michigan passed a right-to-work law in 2012 which changed that and permitted myself and others to opt out of paying dues to the union-even though we are still forced to accept union representation.

Unfortunately, the UAW is still the only representation available if you’re an hourly autoworker at the Big Three-meaning that workers are forced to accept the union’s “leadership” whether they want to or not. Labor experts have proposed a 21st century business model that will take unions into the next century. Those proposals would permit, for instance, workers like myself to represent ourselves.

But before we can even get that far, union officials in every industry must first admit that the problem exists. Until that happens, their credibility will continue to diminish with workers, their wheels will continue to spin in the muck, and union density will remain at historically low levels.

Bowman is a 21-year Ford UAW autoworker.