UAW chief admits some mistakes in pushing Prop 2 despite Snyder’s warnings

December 14, 2012
UAW chief admits some mistakes in pushing Prop 2 despite Snyder’s warnings
King: ‘This was a hard blow’
On election night, Bob King knew what lay ahead.

Last month’s rejection of Proposal 2 assured organized labor’s defeat this week in Michigan’s lopsided right-to-work battle, culminating a series of miscalculations by the United Auto Workers president and others.

Barely a month after voters killed a proposed collective bargaining amendment to the state constitution, the right-to-work loss weakens his credibility with the union’s major employers, imperils his membership and potentially slows the union’s dues flow, say labor analysts and ranking auto industry execs familiar with the situation.

“I’d rather try and fail than not try at all,” King said in an interview Thursday from Geneva, Switzerland, where he is attending a meeting of a global union federation. “This was a hard blow. Did we make some mistakes on Prop 2? Yes, we did. We did it because of broader concerns for the labor movement” — legislation barring dues collection from public school teachers being one example that particularly rankled.

The bottom line, according to multiple sources close to the situation, is that Prop 2’s smackdown by voters statewide made right to work a political certainty in the state capital of the UAW’s home. It also trains special attention on King’s tendency to make critical political decisions with scant input from other national labor leaders or Dems in Michigan’s congressional delegation.

Everybody knew what was coming.

In the interview, King twice said it is “accurate” to say Gov. Rick Snyder explicitly warned him that Republicans in the Legislature likely would push right-to-work legislation in the lame-duck session if labor ignored the GOP majority in both houses, pressed ahead and filed petitions to place Proposal 2 on the November ballot.

“I talked to the governor and we both wanted to find a path” to keep “divisive” right-to-work bills from coming to the floor of the Legislature, the UAW president said. “We told him we heard they were going to do it in lame duck. We had that discussion before the petitions were filed.”

The GOP’s right-to-work Blitzkrieg in the state Legislature, begun and ended in five days, is a historic blunder by King and his union associates. Or it’s the unintended consequence of his zeal to become a bigger political kingpin than his predecessor, including doing what it takes in an election year to deliver successfully Michigan’s 15 electoral votes to help re-elect President Barack Obama. Or it’s both.

King has “broken out of the bounds of the usual labor leader,” says Art Schwartz, a retired General Motors Co. labor negotiator who has known King since the early 1980s. “Bob has a long history of being involved in what you call the ‘liberal left.’ Ron Gettelfinger,” King’s predecessor, “was focused on the bounds of contracts and his membership. He’s much more of a politico than Gettelfinger ever was.”

The UAW and organized labor across the state are poised to pay the price, raising a critical question for the UAW: Is King’s political activism at home and globetrotting in search of foreign labor alliances helpful to a union struggling to retain members and organize new ones in a bid to repair its weakening finances?

“I definitely think it is,” King said from Geneva, a prosperous, carefully manicured city. “Walter Reuther said you can win it at the bargaining table and lose it at the ballot box. If you don’t build broad coalitions, you can’t do that. Every UAW president … (was) very active politically.”

Historically, yes, but not necessarily in style or action akin to King. A series of political miscues, starting with a fiery speech in February on the 75th anniversary of the Sit-Down Strikes in Flint, set a tone that many outsiders — and more than a few union supporters — perceived to be in conflict with the post-bailout image of a union and its president ready to navigate the challenges of the 21st-century global economy.

Two months later, King and the UAW helped spearhead the “99 Percent Spring” movement that planned to picket General Electric Co’s annual meeting in Detroit. He reversed course under pressure from business-minded Democrats, auto execs and the Snyder administration, who worried the planned protests would tarnish the image of a recovering Michigan that had conquered its confrontational past, finally.

But it was the decision to press ahead with a ballot question seeking to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution that ensured passage of historic right-to-work bills in the birthplace of the modern labor movement. The call was not King’s alone, according to several sources familiar with the process, who pointed to the Michigan AFL-CIO, the SEIU, AFSCME and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, among others.

That’s not good for a union like the UAW, which cannot afford a “catastrophic” mistake, to borrow the adjective used this week by David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. In a state that painted its capitol GOP red in what King called the “tsunami” of the 2010 elections, a gaffe of that magnitude is all the more inexplicable — even if signs of it coming loomed larger with each passing month.

In a January 2011 speech to the union’s political action committee, the UAW president warned that the union faced an existential crisis if it continually failed to organize foreign-owned automakers operating in the United States. Nearly two years on, the union cannot claim a single victory in its namesake industry.

His efforts to forge alliances with foreign unions in Europe, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere have produced meager results, a testament to divergent goals and parochial economic stresses (like the European sovereign debt crisis) that give such tie-ups lower priority in the real world.

King and his leadership team last year delivered their members comparatively solid contracts with Detroit’s automakers. But the union’s resistance to opposing Japan’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, lest the union be seen as crossing the Obama administration, and King’s consideration of a political alliance with Ambassador Bridge mogul Matty Moroun has infuriated auto execs.

Both moves, later reversed under pressure, signaled a tendency by King to let partisan politics drive union policy instead of what arguably is right for the UAW’s dues-paying members and their employers. The competing New International Trade Crossing bridge, a competitor to Moroun, promises to create 10,000 jobs, most of them union.

Now, a new threat is emerging to labor membership rolls in Michigan, born in part by the few who ignored the warnings, tried and failed twice. They own right to work in Michigan as much as the Republicans who passed it and the governor who signed it into law.

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