By Jack Lessenberry
The Blade, Toledo, Ohio.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet Cindy Estrada, the UAW’s international vice president for not only GM, but also the union’s women’s department. She is one of the very few women in leadership breaking barriers in the auto industry.
Imagine a typical Detroit union leader, and what comes to mind? A burly guy with slicked-back graying hair and heavy-rimmed glasses?
Maybe, if you mention the United Auto Workers, elderly people and history buffs might remember Walter Reuther, a trim man who was filled with intense energy and saw the union as a vehicle for not just getting better-paying jobs, but also for transforming society.
But that vision seemed to have died with him in a tragic plane crash in May, 1970. The union he built, which peaked at 1.6 million members not long after his death, has a fourth of that number today.
Instead of the Big Three, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler are now the Detroit Three. Most Americans today buy cars made by foreign-based automakers — and the UAW hasn’t been successful at organizing a single one of their plants in this country.
Yet the union is still here. And a Hispanic woman who was the lead negotiator in last year’s bargaining with GM just might be the key to the union’s future.
Meet Cindy Estrada, the UAW’s international vice president for not only GM, but also the union’s women’s department. She is the first woman ever to have headed the GM department.
She’s also the only Latina to rise this high in the UAW. Tiny and driven, she started out as a teacher, got involved with the union almost by accident, and proved to be a formidable organizer.
Her first big success was with a firm called Mexican Industries, founded by former Detroit Tiger pitcher Hank Aguirre. The first time she led an organizing drive, the union was badly beaten.
Years later, after a stint working in California with the United Farm Workers, she tried again with Mexican Industries and led the UAW to success. It turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory, however; the firm went out of business before long.
Organizing parts suppliers is risky. A company may move work to another, usually nonunion supplier that can charge less, because it pays workers less.
But Ms. Estrada is convinced workers need unions as much as ever. “So why do we need unions?” she said over coffee late one recent afternoon. “The biggest myth in America is that manufacturing jobs are automatically the path to the middle class.”
That was true back when it was easy to get a high-paying assembly line job. Many of those jobs have disappeared. And while things are getting better again for those who work for the Detroit Three, that’s not true elsewhere.
“Eighty percent of each car is built in the parts sector,” she told me. There, workers make 10 bucks an hour, nine bucks, and that’s not including health care. Their real wage, when you subtract that, is starvation wages.”
That frustrates her. Ms. Estrada, whose grandparents were migrant workers, grew up in southwest Detroit, where her parents owned a bar where auto workers hung out.
Now 47, she looks considerably younger. After high school, she went to the University of Michigan and got a teaching degree, but was drawn into trying to help organize Mexican Industries while she waited for a classroom job.
She never looked back. An older UAW official, Frank White, trained her to be an organizer. “He told me, I’m going to ruin your career,” she said.
He did affect it; they have now been married for nearly 20 years, and have twin 12-year-old sons, Jesse and Jason.
Union work, she agrees, is often frustrating these days. How, I asked her, do unions grow in an era when employers can easily ship jobs overseas or to other, nonunion states?
“I don’t think we’ve figured that out yet,” she told me. But “it drives me crazy when someone asks why we need unions now.
“When workers have a real voice, things run better,” she said. “Everyone wants lean manufacturing, but they don’t realize you can’t have the lean without the culture, and the culture includes workplace democracy.”
The UAW is growing again, if slowly; from a low of 355,000 members in 2009 at the depths of the Great Recession, it was up to 403,466 last year. An increasing number of its members are women, and some UAW members aren’t in the auto industry at all.
The union has been diversifying — and some analysts say that when the UAW has to choose a new leader in a little more than two years, they might do well to pick one who can relate to nontraditional audiences.
That would describe Ms. Estrada. She quickly dismisses any talk of that; she sees UAW President Dennis Williams as a mentor, whom she deeply admires.
But when she is gently pressed, she admits she has thought about the possibility of someday being the first woman to lead the union.
“Yes, I have some ideas I’d like to try,” she said. “But on the other hand, I have two kids, that is a very demanding job, and I think — I don’t know.”
She is sure that the union is important. If she emerges as the UAW’s next leader, one consideration in her favor may be her age. UAW presidents traditionally retire at 65.
That has meant most recent presidents have been able to serve through just one round of contract negotiations. Ms. Estrada is young enough to be there for quite some time.
No doubt, some people have a hard time imagining a female president of Detroit’s most important union. Ten years ago, they would have found that notion about as impossible as the idea of a woman as CEO of GM.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.