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UAW convention offers optimism, grim outlook

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UAW convention offers optimism, grim outlook



The UAW's 35th convention opened Monday with contrasting messages that were both optimistic and grim.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm and some UAW delegates painted a picture of a progressive new union that came up with new ideas during troubled times to lay the groundwork for a new future.

Granholm cited Ford's recent decision to move production of battery packs and axles for new electric vehicles to its own UAW plants in Rawsonville and Sterling Heights from outside suppliers in Mexico and Japan -- a move enabled by lower costs made possible by UAW concessions.

"This is a formula we have to replicate," Granholm said. "We need to co-invest to ensure manufacturing is done here."

But a more sobering view came from outgoing UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, who said unions continue to be heavily disadvantaged when it comes to organizing. Other union delegates, meanwhile, are pushing to roll back the concessions that are making some local plants more competitive now.

"These pro-employer, anti-union forces continually attack unions and workers that want to form a union," Gettelfinger said during his last speech as president.

A report the union provided to the 1,200 delegates at the convention said four of every 10 vehicles assembled in the U.S. this year will come from nonunion plants.

It also said that when unionized government workers are excluded, barely 7% of all American workers belong to any union -- the lowest level in decades.

The UAW has suffered more than most with its ranks down to 355,191 in 2009 from a peak of about 1.5 million in the mid-1970s.

Gettelfinger, who served two terms as president, agreed to multiple contract concessions that included a second-tier wage of about $14 per hour for new hires.

That concession, as well as moving about $88 billion in retiree health care liabilities into a UAW-managed trust fund, largely closed a competitive labor cost gap between Detroit and Asian rivals.

Ford's recent decision to in-source key parts for its next-generation electric cars underscores the cost and quality advantages the UAW can use to bring more work into UAW-represented factories.

But Tom Kanitz, Local 892 shop chairman at the ACH plant in Saline, worries that $14 per hour isn't enough to support the middle class that the UAW helped create. His plant, which employs about 300 people, recently hired about 20 workers at the lower wage.

"We have some new people who, in some cases, may have come from McDonald's where they made $8 or $9 an hour. So for a while, they're happy to get $14. But it's not enough to support a middle-class standard of living," he said.

Raymond Smetana, another member of UAW Local 892 at Ford's parts plant in Saline, said this of the lower-paid workers: "We want them to be able to earn more and have better benefits."

Cornelius Hooper, of UAW Local 653 in Pontiac, said he believes the concessions of recent years were necessary. Now, he expects that the 2011 contract talks with the automakers will be extremely difficult as workers try to regain their footing. "It's going to be hard on both sides," Hooper said. "You always want back what you gave up and the corporations are not going to want to give them back."

"I believe we have compromised ... at the right time for the right reasons," said Karl Sill, of UAW Local 1435 in Perrysburg, Ohio. "Hopefully we can get them back."



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