Video: Ford's turnaround

updated 9/15/2006 2:30:08 PM ET 2006-09-15T18:30:08

The details of the buyout package Ford Motor Co. is offering 75,000 union workers show the vestiges of the United Autoworker Union’s might: The package includes full lifetime retirement benefits for workers 50 or older with 10 years of service and a $100,000 account for retirees to use for the education of their children or spouses.

But the deal also shows what the union has been reduced to: Getting a good deal for its members as they leave their jobs forever.

“On the one hand, it’s remarkable that the union is able to negotiate something like this for its workers from a company that’s losing so much money and is in so much trouble. So it’s a tribute to the power of the union,” said Ross Eisenbrey, the policy director at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal nonprofit think tank in Washington. “On the other hand, it portends a future where the union will have less power and strength.”

That future has already arrived, for both the UAW and the entire labor movement.

The decrease in union membership has been stark. The UAW had 1.2 million members 20 years ago; it now has less than 600,000. Twenty percent of the United States work force was unionized in 1983. By 2005, union membership had dropped to 12.5 percent of the work force, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The union members who remain are not as bold as their brethren were back when unions were larger and more powerful. The number of workers on strike or locked out in labor disputes involving more than 1,000 workers shrunk by nearly 90 percent from 1983 to 2005, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Eisenbrey blames unions’ decline on unfriendly federal labor policies and a hostile National Labor Relations Board, the independent federal agency charged with reviewing unfair labor practices and certifying workers’ votes to join a union.

“The NLRB is the most anti-union board ever,” he said.

Others blame the unions themselves.

“They’re not organizing, they’re not growing,” said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University. “They’re just trying to cushion the impact on their members.”

The labor movement has been on the defensive for the last decade, he said. “They’re unable to deal with globalization issues and nonunion competition. They have no way to solve this.”

The result of weaker unions, especially for blue collar workers, has been stagnating wages, said Eisenbrey.

While foreign automakers used to match UAW wages for their own non-unionized workers in the U.S., some are beginning to introduce lower wages at a few U.S. plants, paying workers $10 or $12 an hour, down from the $27 union wage, he said.

At Ford, the difference between union and nonunion employees will likely be even more stark. Ford said Friday that it would cut an additional 10,000 nonunion salaried jobs.

“There’s probably a lot of Ford (union) workers talking with their families, saying ’What should I do? Things aren’t going to get any better,”’ Chaison said. “At least they get to ask that question. For professional and clerical workers, they just receive an announcement; they don’t get to make a choice.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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