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UAW weighing GE protest

April 24, 2012
UAW weighing GE protest
Pressure from political leaders may scale back plans to join ‘99 Percent Spring’ activists
By BRYCE G. HOFFMAN / The Detroit News
Detroit — The United Auto Workers will join other labor unions and activist organizations on Wednesday in what is being billed as a major protest aimed at disrupting General Electric Co.’s annual shareholders meeting — part of a nationwide effort, called the “99 Percent Spring,” to jump-start the Occupy Wall Street movement.

At least that was the idea.

The union now seems to be dialing down its plans under pressure from political leaders who worry the demonstration could become a major embarrassment to a city and state struggling to attract business and investment, according to sources familiar with the situation.

The UAW would not comment on Wednesday’s event. But speaking to a crowd of union members in Flint two months ago, UAW President Bob King said the GE shareholder meeting, to be held at the Detroit Marriott, was an opportunity to take the UAW’s crusade for what he called “social justice” to a new level.

“It will take direct action. It will take us being willing to face arrest,” he said. “In April, we’re going to be part of a broad coalition that’s going to be training our membership and anybody who cares about justice in this society in nonviolent direct action.”

The UAW made good on that promise with a series of three-hour training sessions that began on April 10. Workers who attended the three-hour workshops told The Detroit News that they included role-playing exercises designed to teach participants how to deal with police and what to do if they were arrested. However, they said instructors stressed that their goal was to go “right up to the line” without actually being handcuffed.

Other organizations involved in planning the protest hope to use Wednesday’s shareholders meeting to “send a message” to “the 1 percent” that control most of the wealth in America today.

“We do need to take on the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King to make our point,” said the Rev. Charles Williams, Michigan president of the National Action Network, another group organizing Wednesday’s protest. “Companies like GE go years without paying taxes, and municipal government employees are getting smashed.”

King’s decision to involve the UAW in the 99 Percent Spring movement is part of a broader strategy to reclaim some of the political clout the union has lost over the past several decades.

“He’s trying to make the union politically relevant again,” said Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. He noted that the UAW was once a leader in the civil rights movement, but has become more focused on protecting its members’ economic interests in recent decades. And Chaison said most of the rank and file would like to keep it that way.

“There is a danger that the membership might say, ‘We want to be part of the 1 percent!’ We used to be the aristocrats of the manufacturing workers, and we want that position back.’ Instead, they’ve got two-tier wages and profit-sharing,” he said. “I think the membership is looking for militancy at the bargaining table.”

Some members do object to King’s focus on issues that have little to do with the automobile industry or their jobs in it.

“As a UAW member, I see a lot of benefits to collective bargaining,” said Ford worker Brian Pannebecker. “I feel that my dues money should go towards that and to improving my work environment, my pay and my working conditions — and not to political activities.”

A General Electric executive on Monday touted the 850 jobs created since 2010 at its Van Buren Township advanced manufacturing and software technology center.

GE spokesman Andrew Williams said in an email Monday that “GE’s tax rate for 2010 was low because we lost $32 billion in our financial business during the global financial crisis.That tax rate increased to 29 percent in 2011 as our financial business has recovered.”

Demonstrations like the one planned for Wednesday run the risk of upsetting politicians who are trying to put forward a more business-friendly image of Detroit. They also do little to help the union’s efforts to convince foreign automakers that it is a potential partner in promoting their own success.

But with its membership ranks plummeting, Chaison said King may be worried about his union losing its place in American politics to larger, more militant organizations like the Service Employees International Union.

“He’s trying to show that they still have a voice,” Chaison said.

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