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How Bob King wants to build a new UAW

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How Bob King wants to build a new UAW

He sees growth -- and a fair share for workers



New UAW President Bob King said union workers have made "huge sacrifices" to help automakers become more competitive and that it's time for workers to share in the growing financial successes of GM, Ford and Chrysler.

"I want to see that when the upside is shared, that it is shared on some fair, proportional basis," King said in a wide-ranging interview with Free Press editors and reporters this week.

King outlined his vision for a union focused on broader economic justice -- no matter how difficult to attain the ideals might be -- and cooperative problem solving between labor and management.

Paul Kersey, director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the union's push for a bigger share of the automakers' success shows that the UAW remains out of touch.

"Companies ought to be profitable," he said. "Bob King seems to want to treat this as a rainbow to prosperity now that the storm is over ... and I think it is very premature."

King also said it's time for America's CEOs to accept globally competitive wages.

"They are paid outlandishly more than anybody else in the rest of the world, so that has to be addressed," King said.

Whether that view will lead the UAW to push for changes at the Detroit Three remains to be seen. For now, King's strategy to lead the UAW includes ramping up global organizing and re-inspiring the labor movement. "We are about making a better America," King said. "We are about making the companies successful."

A world of opportunity

UAW President Bob King, 64, elected to lead the union in June, has brought a more open and aggressive style to the union as it tries to grow its membership and prepares to renegotiate its four-year contract with domestic automakers.

King discussed those and other challenges in a wide-ranging interview with Free Press editors and reporters. The following is an edited account of the discussion.

QUESTION: You would think, given the things going on, and the sacrifices that workers are asked to make over and over, that this would be labor's time. ... And yet it seems like maybe the opposite is true, that labor is struggling to sort of keep traction. What's your take on that?

A: Well, I think when you are 7% of the private sector, you don't have anywhere near the clout or the leverage to win workers the fairness that they deserve.

So, I think a huge responsibility of the UAW, and every union, is to have aggressive, comprehensive strategies to organize.

Q: Do you see opportunities to expand labor's footprint?

A: Definitely. ... This is a UAW that understands the importance of global competitiveness. It is a UAW that went through this horrendous period of contraction in the industry because both labor and management had it wrong. Now I think we have it right.

Q: Was it necessary to have the near-death experience for the Detroit auto industry to get to that sort of mutual agreement around these goals?

A: Well, I think people were moving there, but I think it certainly speeded it up. It's a pretty sad statement to have to lose as many members as we did and the companies had to close as many plants as they did. But ... I'm excited that we have this foundation now. We have the ability to grow market share and grow volume and put a lot of people back to work.

Q: You've said on a couple of occasions that workers who have sacrificed a lot through the collapse of the auto industry should gain as things recover. What does that mean?

A: It's gaining financially. How we do that is an open question. ... And I think there is a pretty broad understanding that we can't bargain agreements that make the companies long-term uncompetitive. We don't want to get back into the spiral that we just got out of. ...

We have to figure a path that really gives our membership ... their fair share of the upside. ... I think our members made these huge sacrifices. I want to see when the upside is shared, it is shared on some proportionate basis.

Q: Are we at the point yet where we are getting to the upside, or are there probably some more concessions that people will have to make?

A: I don't see any more concessions in this round of bargaining. My view of the world, American manufacturing talks about being globally competitive. We buy into that, and yet American CEOs are not globally competitive. They are paid outlandishly more than anybody else in the rest of the world. So that has to be addressed.

Q: Paint a picture of what bargaining does look like if pattern bargaining is reduced.

A: Between Ford and General Motors and Chrysler, you do have to keep fairness. ... Overall, we are not going to put one company at a disadvantage to the other companies. That wouldn't be right. That wouldn't be fair. What we don't have the ability to do right now is to make sure that that pattern stays throughout the whole industry.

Q: Across most of America, when you say 'UAW' you conjure a lot of negatives. I wonder if you could paint a picture of how you would like to see the union thought of.

A: I want to create and build all of the documentation in the world that (shows) ... if they are a UAW employee, you know that you are going to get the best quality possible ... that is, long-term, what will give us the greatest security and the greatest stability to get good contracts and good wages and benefits for our membership? ...

So the people attack the labor movement and say we are holding competitiveness back -- I don't think that is accurate. ...I would say to those folks, why are you recommending continuing hundred-thousand-dollar tax breaks to people making millions a year and not putting the money into the infrastructure? It's wrong.

Q: You are working a little bit in Mexico with the labor unions at the (Johnson Controls) plant there, so I was wondering if you would talk a little about that and how much resources the UAW has to dedicate to your big dream of global economic justice?

A: We will be doing more internationally. We are in some exciting planning now about, how do we do that? We will be rolling that out hopefully in the next 30 days.

We are setting up some meetings ...with people who have spent a lot of time in China ... I'm afraid the labor effort could get crushed if there is not outside support.

Q: A year after the government rescue and the bankruptcies, walk us through your verdict.

A: I'm very appreciative of President Obama and the Democratic leadership. It was not the politically popular thing to do. ... He invested in American companies and American workers. And that investment is paying off.

I don't know how you ever recoup the loss to the communities, the families, all of the jobs that we lost ... The way you learn from that is you make sure you don't get back into the same box or the same downward cycle ... The challenge is to make sure that as volumes increase, as new capacity is needed, it is built in the U.S. -- not other places.

Q: For UAW membership today, is job security the trump issue?

A: I think clearly that is the biggest thing. ...Job security, getting investment in our facilities, pushing forward on the newest technology -- all of those things are important.

Q: If you paid a visit tomorrow to the BMW plant in (South Carolina) and you got an opportunity to get two minutes with workers to tell them why they should join the UAW, what's the pitch?

A: I think the pitch is look at the success at Ford. Look at the success at General Motors. We are building the highest quality; we're building with the greatest productivity, and we are doing it because of membership involvement. We have a real voice. Members in Chicago felt secure to really fight against their immediate management, saying you're screwing this up on quality. Somebody in the BMW plant, I don't think, would have the security to do that.

I think that ... if it wasn't for the UAW, I don't think government would have intervened at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

The Department of Energy loans -- that was originally a UAW idea. Nissan benefited, a lot of other people benefited, but that was a UAW idea.

Q: It is pretty clear that the car companies have an ally in the White House. ... But I wonder if from your perspective, it looks quite the same. Do you have the partner you need in Washington?

A: We never have had somebody who is as sensitive or caring about ... working people as much as President Obama is. But he certainly does not agree to do everything labor wants.

Q: Are the people who tell me that the Democratic Party and the labor movement are going to shift most of their resources to the Supreme Court elections, if Virg Bernero doesn't close a lot of distance in the next couple of weeks, misinformed?

A: I'm not in that camp. I'm sure there are people who feel that way. ... I really believe that we can win.

There is nobody in Michigan or Ohio, in my mind, that shouldn't be voting for President Obama and the Democrats. Our two states would be dead if he hadn't saved the industry. And I believe that you don't give up because it's tough or because you're behind. You keep fighting and pushing, and we can come back.

Q: You have a lot of anger and frustration in your own rank-and-file and ... you had a little bit of that blowback when you tried at Ford to get the same deal that GM and Chrysler had agreed to. How tough is it going to be to sell to the rank-and-file who may want a return to what they had a little faster than what you feel you can give it to them?

A: When you get into 2011 bargaining, there will be a lot more at stake. I'm very confident in our local leaders and our members. Given the facts, they will make the right decisions.

I think the biggest (part at Ford) was the (no) strike clause, not understanding why was it necessary to do the no-strike clause. And No. 2 was Alan Mulally's bonuses. They killed us. ...

I meant to give this to Alan. In my car I have this block a member made in the plant. It's a big wooden block and it's got a million-dollar bill and Alan's picture on it. I'm fine where I'm at. You remember when he said that? And at the end it has this huge screw. UAW members getting screwed.

They felt the injustice of it. And it wasn't right. ...

To Alan's credit he took a $600,000 pay cut. He more than made up for it with stock options but that was a board decision too. It wasn't his decision. And I think there is a real problem in the United States, a philosophical and political viewpoint. Shareholders should have a voice in this. Shareholders don't have any voice in setting executive salaries. And I think that is wrong. So I guess that is a multipronged approach.

Q: How much more politically difficult is it to get your fair share of the upside when you will be negotiating with two companies that are still likely to be part-owned by taxpayers next year?

A: I think you will see a different approach from the UAW in terms of negotiations and how we handle negotiations. ... We are constantly working together to improve quality and improve productivity to make sure that they stay competitive. So that is how we will be doing the 2011 negotiations.

Q: So you don't style yourself as sort of an adversarial, confrontational unionist?

A: Not at all. What I want employers to understand is if you work with the UAW they will be the most proactive partner you can work with. ... If you violate workers' rights they are going to be the worst nightmare you could face.

What I hope you see is ... we are about making a better America. We are not about selfishness. ...We are about making the companies successful. We are about building the middle class again in America. We are about strong schools. We are about a green environment.

Q: You've been losing members for a number of years, but you have had some wins this year -- (a first casino contract with the Atlantic City, N.J.) Tropicana and (a contract for postdoctoral researchers at the University of California). So is there a chance that you will see your membership increase this year or next year?

A: I'm going to do everything in my power to see that that happens. I am optimistic. We are taking a more analytical approach to organizing. We will be doing bigger organizing drives when we do them.

Q: Would the UAW put a restriction into a contract that would tie a CEO's salary to a multiple of the average worker's wage?

A: Yes. I doubt the company would agree to it ... if there is one person way out of line with everybody else, I think it undermines the morale of the whole organization.



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