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Unions: Restore concessions

June 15, 2010

Unions: Restore concessions

Leaders tell carmakers to reward sacrifice as Gettelfinger departs

The Detroit News

The powerful head of the AFL-CIO called on Detroit’s recovering automakers Monday to give back concessions made by union workers to preserve the industry.

"The three major U.S. companies are making profits again," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a speech on the opening day of the United Auto Workers’ constitutional convention. "We salute their success, and we demand that they do right by the workers who have done right by them.

"Just as there has been shared sacrifice in periods of pain, there must be shared prosperity in periods of gain," Trumka said, echoing calls made by UAW leaders.

Departing UAW President Ron Gettelfinger urged members, meanwhile, to keep the faith. "Today, more than ever, we need to feel the passion of the labor movement," he told hundreds of delegates representing autoworkers across the country and, increasingly, employees in other industries.

In his parting comments after eight years at the helm, Gettelfinger saluted workers for their sacrifices and efforts during "some of the darkest hours" since the union’s turbulent beginnings.

The convention coincides with the union’s 75th anniversary — and a critical crossroads in its history. Manufacturing workers represent a shrinking portion of the UAW’s membership, depleted by continuous restructurings of the U.S. auto industry.

The UAW now holds stakes in Chrysler Group LLC and General Motors Co. in recognition of workers’ historic sacrifices, such as accepting two-tier wages, to ease the industry’s cost burdens.

Trumka’s call for the restoration of pay and benefits is likely to become an issue next year when the UAW, under a new president, will negotiate a new national contract with Detroit’s automakers.

Trumka, who represents more than 11 million workers as head of the nation’s largest organization of labor unions, grew increasingly impassioned as he spoke, drawing an enthusiastic response and a standing ovation.

Many workers echoed his call for automakers to restore lost benefits as their finances improve.

GM earned $865 million in the first quarter, its first profit since 2007. It is preparing for a public share offering, possibly this year, likely to enrich its new managers.

Ford Motor Co. made more than $2.7 billion last year and posted a profit of nearly $2.1 billion for the first quarter of 2010.

The Dearborn automaker has restored some benefits to hourly employees, but Ford and GM have stressed the need to remain competitive with foreign automakers, especially those with U.S. plants.

But efforts to debate giveback proposals drafted by UAW locals were turned down Monday by Gettelfinger. He said it would be more appropriate to debate such measures at next year’s collective bargaining convention.

One attempt to get a proposal debated was made by Gary Walkowicz, a bargain committeeman at UAW Local 600 in Dearborn, who will challenge UAW Vice President Bob King for the presidency. Walkowicz concedes he is unlikely to beat King, who has been endorsed by UAW leaders.

Many delegates said they were weary of criticizing their leaders. "I know some people want to lay the blame on UAW leaders, but they didn’t create the terrible situation a lot of our brothers and sisters found themselves in," said Dan Seger, president of UAW Local 79 in Moline, Ill.

"Bob King will do a very good job (as president) and … Gettelfinger took us through the toughest times a lot of our members ever faced. But we really should be blaming Republicans and unfair trade policies."

Gettelfinger recalled the hostility the UAW faced last year from what he called "anti-union" forces, including lawmakers from states with "transplant" factories owned by foreign automakers.

"The contempt for the UAW was so deep that some of them were willing to let the industry collapse in the hopes they could destroy us," he said

While the UAW has shrunk, "we continue our fight because we are standing for a cause that is greater than any one of us," said Gettelfinger, who also received a standing ovation. "It’s not just about organized labor. Our success at the bargaining table benefited an untold number of workers who do not belong to a union."

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