Commentary

DETROIT – You might have expected to see more black robes and pentagrams this week at the United Auto Workers’ bargaining convention.

They are agents of the Devil, aren’t they?

According to a Hart Research survey conducted in December for the AFL-CIO, 46% of Americans have “positive” feelings about unions – up from 35% in 1993. But that leaves a whopping 54% for whom the notion of collective bargaining blows cold.

Leading up to the 2-day UAW event to ponder contract language for this year’s milestone negotiations, local radio waves crackled with grassroots rants against the dark forces of unionism.

The UAW has outlived its usefulness!

They’re killing the economy!

They burn puppies!

OK, the last one is made up. But you get the idea.

However, looking at the more than 1,500 delegates in attendance, there wasn’t a cloven hoof in sight. No fanged, pitchfork-toting monsters. Just average folk sporting monogrammed golf shirts.

Not a single delegate proposed world domination. White House domination, yes. But not world domination.

And there wasn’t even a whiff of the greed for which the UAW is notorious. Instead, there were endorsements of unselfish resolutions, such as one that calls for union members to refuse overtime if their co-workers are on layoff.

Yet, their careworn expressions told a grim tale. Chastened by a stifling business climate exacerbated by lax federal-trade agreements, the UAW has seen its ranks in the nation’s auto plants shrink to 178,000 from 316,000 in 2003, according to the Center for Automotive Research.

So, why is the UAW demonized? Because the courage of its members is feared.

Decade after decade, they’ve tempted fate at the bargaining table by biting the hands that feed them. Who wouldn’t be frightened by an organization with such reckless disregard for the basic human survival instinct?

And doesn’t such intransigence threaten the livelihoods of all?

“That is the overwhelming, prevalent fear,” says noted labor professor Harley Shaiken, of the University of California at Berkeley.

And it is entirely unfounded.

“Unions can be a very pivotal factor to improve productivity and quality,” Shaiken says.

To be sure, the UAW also has been its own worst enemy.

Its rhetoric about vast employer conspiracies to denigrate workers is absurd. And over the years, its considerable clout made featherbedding an institution instead of an aberration.

Less known, however, are the innovations that have bubbled up from the shop floor. Consider one process developed at a Toledo, OH, battery plant run by Johnson Controls Inc.

UAW members there were faced with recurring wrist injuries caused by the repetitive action of removing battery caps and securing them again with a mallet.

So they took it upon themselves to design and build specialized tools that not only made the process safer, they also improved quality and streamlined the plant’s recycling activities.

These tools were then replicated for use in seven other JCI plants.

Such ingenuity bodes well for the UAW’s future.

Hardly the work of the Devil.

emayne@wardsauto.com