One of the lesser known programs of the UAW draws its inspiration from the very core of what founded our union – compassion and caring. The UAW Chaplaincy program started in the mid-eighties as a pilot project at Local 599 in Flint, Michigan. At the time, many UAW members – particularly those in the auto industry – were experiencing extreme pressures as domestic car sales plummeted and the lingering effects of the oil crisis led to huge waves of layoffs. UAW leaders recognized that a program was needed to help members adjust through the difficult times and avoid personal crisis.
Despite what its name suggests, the program is nondenominational. Where some worksites have EAP (Employee Assistance Program) representatives, chaplains work in conjunction with them to assist members. From divorce to bankruptcy, depression to substance abuse, chaplains are a key part of helping our UAW family through hard times.
“I’ve given a few eulogies, been there when sad news is broken to family members and I’ve even been there through plant closings,” says Willie Anderson, chaplain of Local 160 retirees (Region 1). “Our job is to help members get through the toughest of times because that’s what union means.”
Anderson – who retired from New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) in Fremont, California, (Local 2244, Region 5) – has been a UAW member since 1964. “For over 50 years it’s been a vital part of my life and I’m still active after retiring and moving to Michigan. I remember my first week at work – one of the guys showed me around and told me what to expect from working in a UAW shop but he also told me what the UAW members expected from me; that I had to be a part of keeping us strong. Those words have stuck with me through all these years,” says Anderson.
Today, Anderson continues to give back to the UAW. “I want our great union to be strong and vibrant so we can continue to do good things for members and our communities. I’ve served under eight UAW International presidents and the challenges might change, but they are always there. These days, I don’t just check in on folks to make sure they are OK. I also talk to them about the kind of union we want to have. I challenge them to think about their role in making all of us stronger. Whether it’s voting or keeping up to date on matters, we can’t just sit on the sidelines and hope things turn out all right. The most caring thing I can do for our union right now is to build it from the inside – one member at a time,” says Anderson.
UAW Chaplains meet annually at Black Lake for a conference (this year it is May 31 to June 5). In the words of Vice President and Director of the Chaplaincy Program, Jimmy Settles, the chaplains are ready to “engage, support, prosper.”
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