Glenn Spencer Glenn Spencer
Senior Vice President, Employment Policy Division, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


May 07, 2024


Regardless of how one feels about the war in Gaza, the sight of campus protests is disturbing.  Thousands of arrests have been made, and there have been some reports of violence.  But despite the widespread media coverage, one would think that a union interested in representing workers who build cars would have nothing more than a general interest in them.

And yet, United Auto Workers (UAW) president Sean Fain has decided to weigh in.  As the Wall Street Journal has reported, he recently said the war was “wrong” and that the UAW “has been calling for a ceasefire for six months,” meaning since shortly after Hamas had launched its notorious attacks on Israel.

Without choosing sides here, one might ask why Fain felt the need to speak up in this way — and what this has to do with the interests of auto workers.  The answer is that it doesn’t, but it does raise a question about what kind of representation the UAW would provide to said workers.

The issue is that the majority of the UAW’s members no longer build cars.  In fact, only 150,000 or so of the union’s 380,000 members work in auto manufacturing.  The rest cover a broad range of sectors, including graduate students, public sector attorneys, health care workers, casino dealers, movie ushers, bank tellers, even professional jai-alai players.  In the case of the graduate students mentioned above, the UAW represents roughly 40,000 of them, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

The UAW tries to portray its diverse membership as a strength, but others may view it as a liability.  How are the varying interests of these workers reconciled?  Auto workers pay taxes to fund government employees, so would demands for higher wages in that sector be paid for by them?  Graduate students going on strike could disrupt studies for auto workers whose kids go to college (and perhaps result in higher tuition as well).  Auto workers may have family members who could be denied health care if the UAW’s health care members walk off the job. 

All of that raises another question, does the UAW really want to represent the interests of auto workers or just collect the dues revenue that comes with them?   After all, the UAW used to represent 1.5 million workers and now represents less than 1/3 of that.  It needs funds from anywhere possible.

The UAW often brags about its accomplishments.  Based on its varied and potentially conflicted interests, it’s worth asking who it expects to pay for it all.

About the authors

Glenn Spencer

Glenn Spencer

Spencer oversees the Chamber’s work on immigration, retirement security, traditional labor relations, human trafficking, wage hour and worker safety issues, EEOC matters, and state labor and employment law.

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