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UAW membership is down and half of the members aren't in the auto business

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The strike against three big automakers is in its fifth week

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) UAW, UAW, UAW.

MARTÍNEZ: Their union, the United Auto Workers, once had 1.5 million members. Today, they can count barely a fourth of that number and half aren't in the auto business. Here's NPR's Andrea Hsu.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: On a recent Saturday, a crowd marched in the rain outside a Stellantis facility in Tappan, N.Y.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No contract.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: No peace.

HSU: Joining the striking autoworkers were other UAW members, including...

ANDREA JOSEPH: Andrea Joseph. I'm a postdoc fellow at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

HSU: A postdoc who's studying pregnancy. It's actually her second go round as a UAW member. As a grad student at the University of Washington, she took part in a strike that led to yearly raises and better health care.

JOSEPH: Which, as a grad student, were huge for me.

HSU: She's now on the bargaining committee at Mount Sinai, pushing for all that and more in a first contract. On the picket line, she found she actually had a lot to talk about with the Stellantis workers. And she's closely watching the strategy the UAW has deployed against the big three as she thinks about their own strike strategy, if it comes to that.

JOSEPH: We are counting on our siblings in the auto industry to come and join us on the picket lines.

HSU: When the UAW was founded in Detroit in 1935, the A did stand for automobile. As the union grew in size and might, that broadened to include aircraft, aerospace and agricultural implements. These days, it might as well include academia, because roughly 100,000 of its 380,000 members work in higher education. They're clerical workers, teaching and research assistants, adjunct professors, and...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Who are we?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: The postdocs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Who are we?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: The postdocs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Who are we?

HSU: Those were postdocs rallying at Columbia University the other week. From Maine to Alaska, the UAW has been busy organizing on campuses. The University of California system now has 48,000 UAW members, as many as GM. They're mostly young people infusing new energy into an old union.

JOSEPH: Which is also very cool to get to follow in that legacy.

HSU: Eliana Buenrostro, a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant in ethnic studies at UC Riverside, knows there's strength in numbers. UC grad student workers went on strike last fall and won 46% raises over two years. Now she's proud that a portion of her union dues are going into the strike fund that's keeping striking autoworkers afloat.

ELIANA BUENROSTRO: It's very impactful to know that, like, me being a member is contributing to workers being able to exercise their rights.

HSU: Beyond academia, the UAW also represents a wide array of other people - casino dealers, reproductive rights advocates, public defenders and in downtown Detroit, workers at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, who've been on strike for more than a month.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Don't get sick tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: Blue Cross is on strike.

HSU: Andrea Kirby has been with Blue Cross Blue Shield and with the UAW for 21 years.

ANDREA KIRBY: Their fight is our fight. All the workers over there trying to make a living, provide for their families, that shouldn't be a dream.

HSU: For all of its expansion in other directions, the UAW is still intent on growing back the auto part of its membership. Jim Cooper (ph), who builds Jeeps in Toledo, Ohio, is hopeful that a big win for the union now could change the minds of workers in non-union auto plants like those in the South.

JIM COOPER: I think if they can look and see that the union actually got a big win - got cost of living back, enhanced 401(k)s or pension - I think that that would be a symbol that there's a reason for the South to unionize - or even Tesla. Personally, that's what I want.

HSU: And now may be the union's best shot.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENISCUS' "DATURAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.