The UAW is starting out contract talks with the Big 3 auto companies in a defensive and paradoxical position. The employers are pushing for a link between pay and productivity and quality as this Wall Street Journal story notes. Of course, most assembly line workers have little serious influence on these goals given the heavily engineered modern assembly plant.
But all collective bargaining is as much political as it is economic. Public sympathy for industrial unions is at an all time low, even inside the labor movement itself where concern with immigrant rights and keeping a tenuous grasp on political influence takes up more time.
And greatly complicating the situation is that the UAW run healthcare retiree trust sacrificed economic independence and now owns a big equity position in Chrysler and GM. Thus the union, for the first time in its history, is really on both sides of the bargaining table. That is an untenable position.
And it does not help that so much of the rest of the labor movement has been distracted by issues like immigrant rights and rather desperate efforts to maintain political influence in the Democratic party. The decline of manufacturing employment in the U.S. has left unions like UAW without the broader support they need. Unless the new UAW leadership under Bob King has plans to aggressively engage the UAW rank and file in a broader campaign to change the balance of power in the industry these will not be easy negotiations.