updated 3/30/2008 3:37:28 PM ET 2008-03-30T19:37:28

United Auto Workers union membership has fallen below 500,000 for the first time since World War II, reflecting the massive restructuring undertaken by Detroit's automakers.

The union reported Friday in a filing with the Labor Department that it had 464,910 members by the end of 2007, compared with 538,448 at the end of 2006. UAW membership peaked in 1979 at 1.5 million but has been dropping ever since.

Mike Smith, director of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the last time the UAW had fewer than 500,000 members was in 1941. By 1945, UAW membership had surpassed one million.

General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC and their suppliers have cut tens of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs in the last few years as foreign competition and a weak economy have slowed U.S. auto sales.

All three automakers are currently offering buyouts to their UAW-represented hourly workers. In 2006, more than 67,000 hourly workers took buyouts to leave GM and Ford. Chrysler has said it is trying to cut 21,000 of its 45,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs by 2009.

Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in labor issues, said the UAW has "stopped the bleeding in terms of job losses" and is looking to rebuild.

The union's attempts at organizing North American plants run by Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and other Asian and European automakers have been unsuccessful. "The foreign-owned automakers are still in their sights. None of this is going to be easy, but by the same token I wouldn't write the union off," Shaiken said.

UAW spokesman Roger Kerson declined to comment. The union has said membership levels cited by the Labor Department give a false impression of the union's size. They typically cite a 12-month average membership that is higher _ the UAW's 12-month average was more than 576,000 members in 2006 and 512,560 in 2007.

The government reports union membership listed on Dec. 31.

Union president Ron Gettelfinger said Friday that the membership figures don't include workers who haven't begun paying dues because they don't have a contract _ such as casino employees.

Gettelfinger also told Detroit's WWJ-AM that the totals don't include striking workers such as the 3,600 employees at American Axle and Manufacturing Holdings Inc. who have been off the job since Feb. 26.

The union maintained financial health in terms of assets, according to the report, despite a decline in membership and dues. UAW assets fell slightly to about $1.25 billion last year from $1.26 billion in 2006.

Union dues, meanwhile, fell to nearly $169 million in 2007 from $191 million the previous year. In 2004, for example, dues brought in about $206 million, records show.

Gettelfinger saw a slight increase in salary in 2007, from $145,125 in 2006 to $150,763 last year.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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