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UAW aims to rebuild, rebound

Posted: March 14, 2010

UAW aims to rebuild, rebound

Experts see incoming president as the right person at the right time

BY BRENT SNAVELY

FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

 

General Motors and Chrysler aren’t the only ones trying to bounce back from their bankruptcies last year.




 
 

 

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The UAW also faces a historic challenge of rebuilding not just its membership — which has fallen from a high of 1.5 million in 1980 to a historic low below 470,000 — but also its image.

How low the union’s image has sunk became apparent during congressional hearings in late 2008, when GM and Chrysler sought federal aid. Politicians, bondholders and others over the next several months lashed out at the union and blamed it for the automakers’ woes.

"The vast majority of my constituents are not making anywhere near what General Motors, Chrysler and Ford pay their employees," U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said at the time.

It’s a point of view the UAW faced repeatedly. "They think we are overpaid, lazy workers, and we are not," said Ronda Danielson , president of UAW Local 879 in St. Paul, Minn.

Despite the criticisms, the UAW emerged from the crisis with a surprising amount of potential. The union protected base wages, pensions and retiree health care. And its health care trust fund now owns 17.5% of GM and 67.7% of Chrysler.

That could give the UAW a chance to recast its image, which is critical to rebuilding membership ranks.

Bob King, who is expected to be elected president of the 75-year-old union in June, already has given hints of his new strategy. He’s expressed a desire to better promote the union’s charitable activities, and he’s signaling that the insular union will be more open and transparent.

"I think we hit the low point last year and we’re on the rebound," said Mike Dunn, chairman of UAW Local 5960 in Lake Orion.

King excels at strategy, innovation

King is known as an effective organizer and strategist who has the right skills to lead the UAW as it fights to recover from the worst crisis in its history.

King, 63, led the UAW’s national organizing department for eight years as vice president before taking charge of the UAW’s Ford department in 2006. He is the union’s nominee to become president at its constitutional convention in June.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger guided the UAW through an era of retrenchment as the nation slid into its worst recession in decades and General Motors and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy.

Now, UAW members are looking for King to preside over an era of restoration.

King declined to be interviewed for this report, but those who know him say he is capable of leading the union through uncharted territory.

"Bob has always shown himself to be absolutely about education, learning and innovation," said John Beck, associate professor of labor and industrial relations at Michigan State University. "He is the right person at the right place at the right time."

A battered image

But King faces the challenge of reversing declining union membership at a time when the labor movement at large has lost power and continues to suffer from an image of workers being overpaid.

"Generally speaking, the image of the UAW has reflected the strength of the labor movement," said Mike Smith, director of the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs in Detroit.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, the UAW was hailed for winning health care benefits and cost-of-living increases for its members.

People thought more favorably about labor unions in the 1950s, when more than 30% of all U.S. workers belonged to a labor union, Smith said.

But labor union membership has shrunk dramatically.

In 2009, just 12.4% of U.S. workers belonged to a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And the favorable image that many people once had of unions, including the UAW, had shifted to one where many saw union workers as overpaid.

By the time GM and Chrysler needed to borrow taxpayer dollars, UAW wages were still higher than those of nonunionized Asian automakers — making the UAW an easy target for Republican politicians.

Jeff Wright, president of UAW Local 249 in Kansas City, Mo., said he thinks repairing the UAW’s image will be difficult as long as unions are outspent by corporations on lobbying.

"I don’t know how you fix that image," Wright said. "I don’t think corporate America will ever stop blaming — not just the UAW — but unions in general."

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In 2009, labor unions spent $43.4 million on federal lobbying, while the automotive industry spent $573 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.


 

 

New approach

King said during a news conference in December that he is optimistic about the UAW’s future. Union watchers expect King to bring a new style to the union that is more cerebral, strategic and aggressive.

He already has said the UAW would craft a new strategy focused on global economic and social justice. King also said the UAW should talk more about the charitable activities of its local chapters.

"It’s a great story that we probably should do more to promote," King said. "A lot of people don’t understand the role that our membership and our local leadership really plays in the communities that they live in."

King also seems determined to build up the union’s image through the news media.

Aside from frequent appearances with Paul W. Smith on WJR-AM (760), Gettelfinger rarely spoke to the news media until last year, when he appeared often on national news programs in defense of federal loans for GM and Chrysler.

In February, the UAW outlined an ambitious set of duties for a new public relations director, such as scheduling news media interviews for UAW officers.

King can be a fiery orator. Last May, when King spoke to workers at a Ford plant, he took a swipe at GM as it prepared for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and plant closures.

He asked the crowd, "If you’re going to take American tax dollars, where should you build?"

"In America!" they shouted.

Dissent in the ranks

One of King’s challenges is to contend with dissension within the UAW.

Many members believe that the union should try to win back concessions it has given up when the union returns to the bargaining table with automakers in 2011.

In 2005, the UAW went back to the bargaining table mid-contract and accepted cuts in wages and health care benefits for retirees. And in 2007, during regular contract talks, autoworkers agreed to a lower, second-tier wage for new workers at about $14 per hour, or about half the existing average hourly wage.

"We have to look at the 2011 contract coming up, and look at how do we get back what we’ve given up," said Gary Walkowicz, a bargaining committeeman at Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant.

Last fall, Walkowicz led a successful effort to defeat proposed changes in Ford’s labor contract that King endorsed.

The dissension is evident on the UAW’s Facebook page, where comments such as the following are common: "The UAW is run by Zombies now. Make sure you have the Zombie Handbook so you can drive a stake through the heart of their stupid attacks on Solidarity."

"You are going to have a lot of people who want payback," MSU’s Beck said. "That is going to be Bob King’s biggest challenge."

Contact BRENT SNAVELY: 313-222-6512 or bsnavely@freepress.com

 

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