Bob King Defends UAW Contract Priorities

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Watch UAW President Bob King on New Contracts: Top Priority Was Creating Jobs on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Though UAW boss Bob King has said that organizing transplant factories is a life-or-death struggle for the union, but the real make-or-break issue this year was the contract negotiations with the Detroit Automakers. And though King roundly denies that a rift has been formed in his union over two-tier wages, the facts simply don’t back that position up. In the last contract to be ratified (with Chrysler) for example, only 54.8% of the union approved the deal… hardly the “overwhelming support” that King claims. Moreover, 55.6% of the skilled-trades workers at Chrysler rejected the contract, according to the Detroit Free Press. King’s narrative of experienced workers “demanding” higher wages for the Tier Two brothers “in the greatest spirit of solidarity” just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The divide between skilled-trades and other workers at Chrysler was a particular problem for the union because its contract allows the 5,000 skilled-trades workers to reject their own portions of the contract even if the union as a whole approved it… which is precisely what happened. But, after meeting with skilled-trade representatives, King decided to do what the union has often been loath to do: trample the better-paid workers in favor of newer hires. The Freep reports:

On Wednesday, the UAW held two meetings to resolve the split vote. If the skilled-trades workers had voted against the contract because of changes that specifically affect only their work, then the UAW would have tried to renegotiate a portion of the Chrysler agreement, King told reporters Wednesday.

“It was overwhelmingly clear that the issues were economic issues and not skilled-trades issues,” King said.

King said he doesn’t anticipate a major backlash from skilled-trades workers after the decision. “We did not go against what the skilled trades voted for,” King said. “We went with what the majority of members said — that they thought this agreement should be ratified.”

That was probably the right decision to make, and King should be commended for it, but it exposes his rhetoric of solidarity as pure farce. In recent years the union has already created a backlash by approving the “innovative labor practices” that threaten to push Tier 1 workers at the Orion Assembly plant into the lower wage tier without a union vote. Once again, King is going against the rules of engagement, which say that any union decision must be ratified by members. The only difference: now he’s backing lower-paid workers. Again, it’s a commendable stand and it shows King’s commitment to returning to some form of solidarity, but it also demonstrates and exacerbates the union’s internal divisions.

Meanwhile, at Ford, King admits that negotiations were “very rocky,” which is something of an understatement. Even though Ford offered the most generous contract of all the Detroit OEMs, the contract got off to a bad start, as workers at several of the first plants to vote refused to ratify the contract. Only after Ford said it would hire strike breakers if the contract failed did the UAW leadership threaten that the deal wouldn’t get any sweeter for members, and the contract eventually passed. But at the Ford plants where the contract failed, there are still signs of internal pressure at the union. At Local 900, which represents three Ford Detroit-area plants, workers were most troubled that more Tier Two hires would be brought in in lieu of giving established workers more overtime.

Meanwhile, at GM the Orion Plant’s “innovative labor practices” seem set to spread to the soon-to-be-reopened Spring Hill plant, even though GM and the UAW insisted that Orion would be a one-off deal in order to build subcompact cars in the US. Automotive News [sub] reports

About 40 percent of Orion’s 1,500 workers make an entry level wage. Under the new contract, they’ll be paid $16 to $19 an hour, a little more than half of what traditional UAW workers make.

A 100 percent entry level work force won’t happen. Several hundred former Spring Hill workers who are either still laid off or relocated to other GM plants should get first shot at the new jobs.

But it’s likely that the vast majority of the 1,710 new jobs will be filled by new employees – and there’s no restricton on the use of entry level wage earners.

If that doesn’t inflame divisions between the UAW’s tiers, it’s hard to say what will. The Orion agreement inspired picketing of the UAW’s headquarters, even though it was made as GM was going into its bailout-bankruptcy and was sold as a necessary move for survival. With GM making profits again, it’s proving that the dissidents who said that Orion-style rollbacks would spread across the workforce were right. As details emerge from Spring Hill, expect more protests and further breakdowns in UAW solidarity.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Omnifan Omnifan on Oct 28, 2011

    One correction. Ford didn't threaten to hire replacement workers. One of the local UAW officials spread that one around. Also, why wouldn't the union focus on a raise for Tier 2 workers? It was the only way to impress the non-union autoworkers that the union was good for something.

  • Cheezeweggie Cheezeweggie on Oct 28, 2011

    Typical Union mentality dictates maximizing wages and benefits with total disregard for anything else. 'Merican auto manufacturers were never successful in the small car segment because of the lack of profit. It's obvious the UAW would rather hand these jobs over to the competition than maintain a competitive wage scale and increase their ranks. Their "solution" is to increase labor costs in their existing near-bankrupt niche, and to unionize the on-shore competition, pricing them out of the market and forcing them to move off-shore. When I worked as a union electrical apprentice, the union members were concerned that they had not received a pay increase in 4 years. Their wages were already substantially higher than their non-union counterparts and their market share was reduced to prevailing wage jobs (schools etc). Their need for the green reduced their job prospects to a niche market that could totally evaporate with the stroke of a pen in Harrisburg (PA). It's obvious that unions are more concerned with short term gain than the possibility of increasing their ranks and improving the business climate that is necessary for them to exist. Larger ranks increase their political power necessary for their future in an increasingly anti-union government. It looks to me that they are no different than the corporate greed that they supposedly oppose.

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