King puts politics over UAW interests

October 12, 2012
King puts politics over UAW interests
Will the real Bob King please stand up.

The United Auto Workers president, scheduled to return home today from a business trip to South Korea, is infuriating the Detroit automakers with an apparent willingness to sabotage the New International Trade Crossing to embarrass Gov. Rick Snyder in November.

“We haven’t taken a position on the proposal,” UAW spokeswoman Michele Martin said Thursday, referring to the ballot question backed by Ambassador Bridge mogul Matty Moroun to require Michigan voters to approve building any new bridge to Canada. “We’re studying the issue and when we make a decision, we’ll make a public announcement.”

Talk about a flip-flop. The UAW and other labor unions on both sides of the border joined with the automakers and a broad coalition of corporations and business interests to support a new bridge deal quarterbacked by Snyder and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper because it would be good for jobs, the flow of cross-border trade and union members.

The $1 billion project — to be financed largely by the Canadian government, not Michigan taxpayers — would create between 10,000 and 15,000 construction jobs, many of them union jobs. When complete, it would speed commerce across the busiest border crossing in North America and undercut the Ambassador Bridge monopoly controlled by Moroun.

So why would the UAW president, a self-described 21st-century union leader allegedly attuned to the rigors of the competitive marketplace, consider abandoning support for a critical infrastructure project embraced by the most important employers to his union and its members and back Moroun?

Partisan politics, mostly, which highlights the intellectual tensions long pulling at King from the inside. The inherent conflict also underscores how King’s sharp politics, almost exclusively in support of the Democratic Party and such causes as the Occupy movement, at times imperils the interests of his dues-paying members.

Where his predecessor, Ron Gettelfinger, was a committed union leader with a decidedly pragmatic streak, King is an ideologue whose leftist political thinking (and public rhetoric) frequently collides with the interests of his members’ largest employers. A brewing fight over support for Proposal 6, the bridge ballot question, is the latest example.

Contemporary reality in 2008 and ’09 forced Gettelfinger to lead the UAW through the harrowing implosion and bankruptcy of two Detroit automakers. Today’s reality is forcing King to grapple with the resulting financial implications of shrinking union membership, as well as public backlash against organized labor and the higher costs it imposes, particularly on the public sector.

King is mounting a backlash all his own. He and the UAW are primary movers behind Proposal 2, the ballot question that asks voters in November to enshrine in the state Constitution collective bargaining rights and to ban right-to-work legislation backed by Republicans.

In supporting Moroun’s bridge interests, the UAW theoretically would be taking another shot against the governor’s agenda — even if it would a) implicitly support Moroun’s Republican sympathizers in the Legislature and b) strain King’s relations with the automakers at the highest levels.

Why? Both sides thought they had a deal. The UAW would endorse Snyder’s bridge deal with the Canadians if the automakers agreed to withhold public or financial support for the highly charged collective bargaining ballot question. Major utilities and state universities, each with substantial union employment, also agreed to stay neutral.

“We said from the beginning that this is an issue that’s a distraction,” a ranking auto industry executive close to the situation said in an interview. “It seems to be more about politics; it seems to be more about standing up against Governor Snyder. They’ve whipped up a hornet’s nest.”

King is nobody’s fool, as anyone who’s negotiated with him could attest. But he shows a maddening penchant for wanting to have it both ways:

The automakers are expected to stand mute in the campaign for a collective bargaining amendment to the Michigan Constitution, arguably one of the most consequential public policy issues to go before voters in years, even as their erstwhile ally in organized labor mulls switching sides on a widely supported infrastructure project to politically wound a sitting governor.

To retain some semblance of hard-won credibility, the UAW president needs to choose between an ideological heart that leans decidedly left and a head that knows cold, hard math spells the difference between success and failure for the union and its members.

It’s simple: He can’t be both.

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