UAW Boss Ron Gettelfinger plans to retire next year, and the search is on to replace the man who led the union through the political minefield that was the auto bailout. But the union’s support for Bob King, who led negotiations with Ford, could open up divisions within the union, reports Automotive News [sub]. King followed the Gettelfinger line, offering Ford many of the same concessions it granted GM and Chrysler during the government bailout that transferred large stakes in those companies to the union’s VEBA fund. Those concessions to Ford, which would have preserved the UAW’s decades-long policy of treating the Detroit automakers equally, were rejected by the same union rank-and-file that must now ratify King’s nomination.
The UAW membership rarely questions presidential candidates who enjoy the support of union leadership, notes AN [sub], but then there’s little at the UAW that is operating as normal. The lines are drawn between a leadership that knows it has drawn down most of its reserves of political capital, and members who see the union leadership as having overseen a major erosion of benefits. “With King, there will be no change in direction of the union,” Labor Notes Commentator Tiffany Ten Eyck tells AN [sub], underlining the conflict within the union.
Ultimately though, the UAW is fairly lucky to have survived the bailout backlash, and had it not been led by a pragmatist (albeit a reluctant one) like Gettelfinger, it might well have been legislated into complete irrelevance. In this sense, King’s commitment to platform bargaining and moderation are good for the union and its employers. But the major element lost by the UAW over the last year is a sense of normalcy. Having been forced into concessions placing it near parity with non-union transplant employees, the UAW rightly lost a lot of legitimacy with its own members, and the rejection of Ford concessions could well have been the first signs of a membership push-back.
But UAW leadership won’t be sitting still on the divisions within its membership. But with few options remaining on the automotive front, the union might just be saved by turning away from automobiles altogether. The head of Flint’s UAW local tells MLive that new UAW leadership could seek to shore up the union’s relevance by emphasizing clean energy manufacturing jobs over the auto industry, diversifying the UAW against the inevitable lean times ahead. But in any case, the UAW is hardly free to determine its own future. The union’s VEBA retiree benefits fund currently holds 55 percent of Chrysler, and a 17.5 percent stake in GM. Those stakes must be monetized post-haste, so the union leadership will continue to face pressure to grant short-term concessions as the automakers move towards IPOs that the union’s fate rests upon. Expect divisions within the UAW to deepen over the next year, as the UAW’s new leaders walk the fine line between its needs as owners and employee representatives.