King: UAW needs to refocus, re-energize
January 28, 2013
King: UAW needs to refocus, re-energize
He sets sights on organizing in South, unseating gov, aiding Dems
United Auto Workers President Bob King said his union is stepping up its efforts to organize foreign automakers and advised Michigan Democrats to rethink their strategy for countering the “war on the middle class” being waged by “right-wing” Republicans.
The past 12 months have been tough for the UAW and its leader. The union — desperate to fill the widening gaps in its membership rolls — is no closer to realizing King’s dream of organizing one of the foreign automakers’ factories in the South than it was at the beginning of 2012.
Meanwhile, in the UAW stronghold that was Michigan, voters rejected pro-union ballot proposals that King strongly and publicly backed, while Republicans pushed through right-to-work legislation that will allow workers to opt out of paying union dues.
And just last week, the federal government released its latest statistics showing that union membership declined nationwide last year.
“Labor has got some huge challenges in front of it. It’s a labor movement issue. It’s not unique to the UAW,” King told The Detroit News in an interview at Solidarity House in Detroit on Friday. “The labor movement has got to come together and have new strategies, new ideas and a new level of focus on rebuilding their ability to get fairness and justice for their members.”
King said a good place to start is right here in Michigan.
“We’ve got to re-energize and rebuild the Democratic Party. I’m not blaming anybody; it’s all of us. So, all of us have got to accept responsibility. We’re not accomplishing for our members, their families or working people in general what we need to be,” he said.
“We’re going to work together with a whole broad array of allies to re-energize the Democratic Party in Michigan.”
King said his goal is to unseat Gov. Rick Snyder and help the Democratic Party win back the Michigan Legislature in 2014.
In the past, King steered clear of calling out the governor by name. But he said all that changed because of Snyder’s decision to sign right-to-work legislation and other bills King finds offensive.
“My views on the governor have changed because of the broad list of extreme-right legislation he has signed,” King said. “He says (right to work) is about worker freedom, that workers should have the choice whether to pay dues or not. “Why doesn’t that correlate to taxpayer freedom? Why don’t I get to say, ‘I don’t want to pay my taxes because I don’t agree with Gov. Snyder?’ He says that this gives unions more accountability. Well, hell, it would give him a lot more accountability if I could say (that).”
The governor’s office said King’s rhetoric is not constructive.
“The governor understands there were divisive issues at the end of 2012. He has acknowledged that change is difficult, but Michigan is now the comeback state and we are on the right path to reinventing Michigan, creating an environment where families and businesses can grow and thrive,” said Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for Snyder.
“The governor has always partnered in good faith, and he will continue to do so as Michigan continues to move forward.”
While some analysts say Michigan’s new right-to-work law could accelerate the UAW’s membership decline, King says he is not worried.
Bigger concerns ahead
“Our membership has been very strong in their beliefs about the importance of being in the union. They may disagree with some issues or some policies. But they’ve got a great understanding that they would not have the wages and benefits, the security, the due process, the democracy that they have — the voice they have in the companies — without the UAW,” he said.
Membership rates have remained high at UAW-organized factories in other states that have adopted similar legislation, he noted.
“We’re not taking it for granted; we’re going out and talking to our members and making sure that the members feel like they’ve got a good sense of what the vision and the plan of the UAW is,” King said.
“It is a concern. (But) a greater concern is the shrinking middle class, the lessening of funding for K-12 education, the taxation of retirees pensions, the attack on women’s rights, the attack on immigrants — all this broad extreme-right agenda that right to work is just one piece of — and, in many ways, is not as harmful to workers as the attacks on kids, the attacks on education, the attacks on community colleges.”
He may not be worried about right to work, but Detroit’s Big Three automakers are. Privately, senior executives at General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC worry about the impact it will have on worker morale. King said they should be.
“If your neighbor didn’t pay his or her share of the police, the fire, the road crews, the snow cleanup, and you had to pay more, would you be happy about that? That’s just unfair on its face,” he said. “This is going to create divisions in the workplace.”
Nissan remains big target
King’s political involvement has made for a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, he is trying to persuade foreign automakers that they have nothing to fear from today’s UAW. After all, the union helped GM, Ford and Chrysler make it through their recent near-death experiences, he says.
But King is also getting embroiled in contentious issues like last year’s “99 Percent Spring” movement and Michigan’s ill-fated Proposition 2, which would have strengthened collective bargaining rights.
All that makes some of the foreign automakers wonder just how much the UAW has changed.
“If those companies knew all the background, they would understand,” King said. “We’re not saying we’re going to stop working for the benefit of workers.”
What he is saying is: “Nobody has more of a stake in the long-term success of the companies than the people in the plants.”
But, so far, the companies are not listening.
And in the case of the UAW primary target — Japan’s Nissan Motor Co. — King says they are doing too much talking of their own.
“In Nissan Canton, every level of management in that plant has been involved in threats and intimidation of workers,” King said, adding that workers at the Mississippi plant have been told the factory will be closed or future vehicles will be produced elsewhere if they vote to unionize. “It is an attack on human rights, civil rights, worker rights.”
Nissan says King is not telling the truth.
“The UAW’s continued attempts to disparage Nissan are unfounded. Over the last 30 years Nissan’s U.S. manufacturing operations have built a hard-earned reputation for being ethical, honest and transparent in our dealings with our employees and the communities where we do business,” said company spokesman David Reuter.
“Nissan employees in Canton enjoy jobs that offer some of the highest manufacturing wages in the state, strong benefits, a working environment that exceeds industry standards and an open dialogue based on transparency and mutual respect. Our results and our reputation in Canton speak for themselves, and they contrast sharply with the negative image that the UAW is attempting to paint of Nissan.”
In fact, Nissan just announced that it will build its next-generation Murano crossover in Canton instead of Japan.
King acknowledged that Nissan and the other foreign automakers are proving tougher nuts to crack than he expected.
“It’s taken more time than I thought, for sure,” he said, blaming “regressive” laws that he says make it hard for the union to organize in the states where most of the foreign-owned factories are located.
But King said he is still confident that he will succeed: “God willing and the creek don’t rise!”
He will have to hurry. King’s term as president is up next year.