For the first time since World War II, United Auto Workers union membership has dipped below 500,000 because of restructuring undertaken by Detroit's automobile manufacturers.
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.
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.