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King's up to bat in a tough new ballgame

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King's up to bat in a tough new ballgame



Ever since the mid-1980s, the UAW has been an organization in retreat, led by frustrated, often combative men who blamed Japan, blamed China, blamed Republicans, blamed the news media, blamed overpaid CEOs, blamed anyone but themselves for the decline of Detroit's auto industry.

New ballgame.A resurgent Ford is on a roll. Post-bankrupt Chrysler and General Motors are lean and debt-free.

Enter Bob King, the UAW's new president. Passionate, idealistic.

A breath of fresh air after his news media-averse predecessors, King loves to talk, loves to philosophize, loves to debate.

He's not easy to label.

Some who hear him talk about social justice and see him march with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other icons of the far left paint King as a modern-day Karl Marx.

Yet when asked to name role models, leaders he admires, whom does King come up with?

Roger Penske, along with a couple of UAW colleagues.

That's right, Roger Penske, racing legend, a tough-minded, hard-charging Capitalist with a capital C.

"Roger was a great boss to deal with," King told the Free Press editorial board in an interview this week. "A great employer because he really was inclusive. ... Roger made sure that supervisors and management treated people with respect in the plant."

When Penske ran Detroit Diesel in the late 1980s and 1990s, he would make commitments to the UAW and get rid of managers who didn't keep them.

"He said, 'We will solve problems. I don't want any grievances.' At the time he came in, they had about 3,000 grievances. Within a year they were down to single digits," King said.

King concedes that both labor and management were complicit in Detroit's automakers losing more than half the U.S. vehicle market to foreign competitors.

"This is a different UAW," he said. "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 and we have good companies to work with."

King's message to employers is twofold:

• "If you work with the UAW, they will be the most proactive partner. They really understand quality and productivity and satisfying the customer."

• And the kicker: "If you violate workers' rights, they are going to be the worst nightmare you could face."

King talks a good game to diverse, seemingly contradictory constituencies. But how can he satisfy them all?

He needs to convince corporate CEOs that the union can be a good, flexible partner.

He needs to convince nonunion workers at Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, BMW and in other industries that the UAW is worth voting for and paying dues to.

And King needs to convince existing members that the UAW is really being hard-nosed with the corporate bosses to win back past concessions and squeeze as much as possible from the companies -- or he won't get contracts ratified.

In a world full of angry people and rife with labor-management distrust, this is a TALL order.

We will soon discover what kind of a leader this King turns out to be.



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