UAW at a crossroads

UAW at a crossroads
detroitnews.com

 

 

 

UAW president Bob King says his organization is undeterred after losing a unionization effort at a Chattanooga, Tenn., Volkswagen plant.

UAW president Bob King says his organization is undeterred after losing a unionization effort at a Chattanooga, Tenn., Volkswagen plant.

United Auto Workers President Bob King is trying to put a brave face on his union’s defeat at the ballot box in Tennessee last month, but Volkswagen AG workers’ rejection of the UAW raises some extremely tough questions for the union and its leader.

King has long maintained that organizing foreign-owned car factories in the South was essential to his union’s survival. In the wake of the surprise upset in Chattanooga, Tenn., some observers have already begun writing the union’s obituary. Others, including some auto executives, wonder if it will force the UAW into a merger with another trade union.

But in an interview with The Detroit News last week, King said nothing of the sort is even being contemplated.

“Clearly, Chattanooga is a setback,” he said. “But it’s a temporary setback.”

The UAW has challenged the results of the election, blaming its defeat on “outside interference” from local conservatives and asking the National Labor Relations Board to set aside the results. Even the union’s opponents acknowledge privately that it may succeed.

Yet even if the UAW does win recognition at the Volkswagen plant, it will now be the result of legal maneuvering, not shop-floor democracy. That does not bode well for the union’s efforts to organize other foreign-owned car factories. And while the vote in Tennessee does not augur the imminent demise of the UAW as some have suggested, it does mean the union will have to look elsewhere for members.

“There’s no plan, no intentions, no work, no effort being put in to try to find a merger partner,” King told the News. “We think we can be a strong, viable union by organizing in the auto industry and other areas where we have members.”

That means auto suppliers, casino workers and graduate students.

Reduced to a shadow

The UAW was once the most powerful union in America. It had 1.5 million members and a strike fund that exceeded $1 billion.

Today, there are about 380,000 names on its membership rolls and $600 million in the strike fund. Local union halls are up for sale, empty like the plants they served. And the American labor movement now belongs to groups such as the Service Employees International Union, which has seen its ranks soar as the American economy shifted away from making things.

To turn back the clock, the UAW has turned its attention to the foreign-owned auto factories south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Those plants were put there for a reason. Companies such as Toyota Motor Corp. and BMW AG did not just want to be as far away from Solidarity House as possible; they wanted to be in places where anti-union sentiment ran deep.

Organizing these “transplant” or “transnational” factories in the South has been a primary goal of King’s administration since he took office in June 2010. He and other UAW leaders had hoped Japan’s Nissan Motor Co. or Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. would be the first to fall. But they have defied the union’s best efforts.

The VW plant in Chattanooga was supposed to have provided an easy — and much needed — win for the UAW. Unlike Nissan and Hyundai, the German automaker appeared to be encouraging its workers to vote for UAW representation. Volkswagen actually agreed to provide the union with the names and home addresses of its hourly employees in Chattanooga and “align messages and communications through the time of the election,” according to the terms of agreement signed by the company and the UAW ahead of the vote.

Why was VW so accommodating? Because Germany’s “co-determination” laws require big manufacturers to give at least half the seats on their supervisory boards to workers or representatives from their trade unions.

German ‘co-determination’

Mitbestimmungsgesetz, the co-determination law enacted in 1976, was designed to keep Germany from falling victim to the sort of labor strife that was doing so much damage to the manufacturing sectors in Britain and France. But the law has, at times, led to a too-cozy relationship between capital and labor, such as the scandal that rocked VW a decade ago when it was revealed that company executives had traded sex and cash for votes from union representatives on its supervisory board.

It also allowed the powerful German auto union IG Metall to pressure Volkswagen executives into embracing the UAW’s organizing efforts in Tennessee.

“If I had a magic wand, we’d pass a co-determination law here, because in a global economy people have to work together,” King said. “That’s what’s so sad about Tennessee. We had this great opportunity for the state, for the workers to be part of.”

But even without such a law, King said the UAW will have to find a way to organize the foreign transplants in the South or risk “a race to the bottom” that will drag auto jobs in Michigan down with it.

“If we don’t organize the transnationals, auto jobs are going to stop being middle-class jobs,” he said. “We’re fighting for the American middle class.”

King pointed to Asian and European automakers’ heavy reliance on what he calls “permanent” temporary workers as one way they are already undermining the economic position of autoworkers here. King blames that for the UAW’s reluctant acceptance of a two-tier wage system in 2007 that pays entry level workers substantially less than veteran employees.

“Either we’re going to raise everybody together, and keep all the companies competitive, and have them compete on design and engineering and so forth, or they’re going to compete in spiraling down,” King warned.

Contract talks approaching

Labor experts such as Harley Shaiken of the University of California, Berkeley, agree with King that the UAW is a long way from going out of business but will ask members for a dues increase to help rebuild its strike fund ahead of next year’s national contract talks with General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC.

And that is not exactly reassuring for Detroit’s automakers, which are already are concerned about the increasingly militant rhetoric they are hearing from local union leaders, according to conversations with executives with all three companies.

“Their concerns are real. I don’t think they’re imagining this. But I think you have deep commitment at all levels of the union to cooperation,” Shaiken said, adding that today’s UAW understands that the best way to guarantee prosperity for its members is to guarantee prosperity for the companies that employee them. “Are you going to have some differences on how that prosperity is shared? Absolutely. You’re going to see that in the next contract talks.”

And that is why the other foreign automakers will continue to resist the UAW’s organizing efforts — at least those not forced to embrace them by their country’s co-determination laws. Privately, senior executives at these companies say the UAW remains essentially the same union as the one that helped run Detroit’s automakers into the ground with its demands for overly generous wages and gold-plated benefits.

But King, who has worked hard to portray the UAW as chastened by the American automobile industry’s recent near-death experience, says they are mistaken.

“Our members understand that we are in global competition, so we have to be competitive,” he said, pointing to the game-changing concessions the UAW agreed to in 2007, 2009 and 2011 that allowed GM, Ford and Chrysler to shed their crushing legacy costs, antiquated work rules and reputation for poor quality. “If people work together, you can find creative solutions.”

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