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UAW faces struggle to fix image, union

UAW faces struggle to fix image, union

<b>United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger, right, and Bob King, UAW vice president, address the media in Detroit on Oct. 13. King is expected to be elected president of the union in June. </b>

United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger, right, and Bob King, UAW vice president, address the media in Detroit on Oct. 13. King is expected to be elected president of the union in June. (CARLOS OSORIO / FILE /


‘Overpaid’ tag proves tough to overcome

By Brent Snavely • DETROIT FREE PRESS • March 22, 2010

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


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.

‘Low point’ reached

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 percent of GM and 67.7 percent 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, has given hints of his new strategy. He has expressed a desire to better promote the union’s charitable activities, and he is 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, Mich.

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.

Former 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."

Union numbers drop

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 percent of all U.S. workers belonged to a labor union, Smith said.

But labor union membership has shrunk dramatically.

In 2009, just 12.4 percent 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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