UAW wish list: Detroit 3 board seats

UAW wish list: Detroit 3 board seats
David Barkholz
Automotive News | January 3, 2011 – 12:01 am EST

DETROIT — UAW President Bob King wants union representation on the boards of the Detroit 3, and sees the German auto industry as a model for a closer partnership with the domestic automakers.

“We have asked for them in the past. And I expect that we will continue to ask” for board seats, King told Automotive News, as he talked about this year’s contract negotiations.

The union and the automakers are holding advance discussions about key issues in the talks, which officially kick off after July 4. The current four-year agreements expire in September.

The UAW historically has shied away from board representation, in part to maintain its independence from management. But King has softened the union’s arm’s-length approach to management, and believes a partnership with the automakers is the best way to ensure job security and create new jobs for UAW members.

The automakers welcome shop-floor cooperation, but offering a board seat would signal a significant cultural shift for Detroit 3 management.

Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said a UAW seat on the board could open a host of thorny issues. What happens, for instance, when the board discusses collective bargaining or sensitive competitive strategies?

“King would be asking for a huge number of conflict-of-interest situations,” he said.

But, he said, board representation could emerge as a bargaining chip for the automakers as they try to prevent more concessions.

“A seat on the board would be a dramatic, newsworthy event, and it doesn’t cost anything,” Chaison said. “It would be largely symbolic.”

The precedent has been set. Chrysler Corp. received a federal bailout in 1980. UAW presidents Doug Fraser and Owen Bieber separately sat on the automaker’s board during the 1980s. Later, UAW officials sat on the supervisory board of DaimlerChrysler AG after Daimler-Benz AG acquired Chrysler in 1998.

King said he’s a fan of the relationship German automakers have with unions. The unions and management share an equal number of seats on the companies’ supervisory boards, which establish long-range policies. A separate management board runs daily operations.

Under that system, German carmakers and their workers enjoy big profits, high wages and excellent working conditions, King said.

“If you want to look at a model that works in the world, it’s the Germans,” he said.

Indirectly, the UAW has a representative on the board of General Motors Co., King said. But that representative, Steve Girsky, represents the UAW-GM Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association, an independent trust that manages retiree health care for GM hourly retirees and their spouses.

King is adamant that the new contract lets the union’s 120,000 active workers at the Detroit 3 share in the reviving fortunes of GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group. As part of the 2007 contracts and modifications made in 2009 during the auto crisis, UAW members took concessions averaging $7,000 to $30,000 per person annually, King said.

One challenge for King will be to get the Ford workers’ contract back into pattern with the contract for GM and Chrysler workers.

In 2009, Ford workers overwhelmingly rejected more concessions that would have included a no-strike clause in their contract. The UAW at GM and Chrysler accepted a no-strike clause in the face of the 2009 bankruptcies of the two automakers.

King, 64, enters 2011 with a full plate. The union intends this month to launch a drive to organize the U.S. plants of Asian and German automakers.

King said hiring by the Detroit 3 in recent weeks has all but eliminated the pool of UAW members on layoff.

He said the controversial deal at GM’s Orion (Mich.) Assembly Plant that calls for a work force made up of 40 percent Tier 2 workers earning half what traditional workers earn was a one-time shot not likely to be repeated.

The deal was structured that way so GM could build a subcompact — in this case the Chevrolet Sonic, which replaces the Aveo — profitably in the United States, King said. Without the special deal, he said, the vehicle and jobs likely would have gone to a low-cost country, such as Mexico.

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Mike Herron
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Zone at Large – 1st
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Joe McClure
Chad Poynor
Steve Roberts
Derek Lewis
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