Source: USA TODAY
DETROIT — With eight months left in his tenure, UAW President Bob King has reversed the union’s membership decline, negotiated contracts that accelerated the Detroit Three automakers’ recovery and established stronger ties with international labor organizations.
Yet he has not achieved his most important goal: organizing an Asian or German assembly plant in the Southeast U.S.
“Bob King has basically staked his legacy on organizing these international assembly plants,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the labor and industry group at the Center for Automotive Research. “Unless they unionize more of the automotive work force in the country, the UAW workers will become wage takers, not wage setters in this industry.”
King, 67, is too old to run for a second term under the UAW’s political bylaws and will retire next June.
In Tennessee, Volkswagen and its German union leaders are trying to create a European-style works council, a move that would pave the way for the UAW to represent more than 2,000 VW workers in Chattanooga.
UAW organizers have partnered with civic groups to try and persuade Nissan workers in Tennessee and Alabama, as well as Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama, that a union can improve their living standards and workplace safety. But no vote is in sight for those workers to decide whether they want to join the UAW.
He also led a painful political miscalculation in Michigan last year — a ballot proposal to embed protection of collective bargaining rights in the state’s constitution. After voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposal 2 by an embarrassing 57%-42% margin, Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature passed legislation during a contentious lame-duck session that made Michigan, the cradle of the American labor movement, a right-to-work state.
On a brighter note, King has reached out to communities where the UAW wants to recruit new members. He also has strengthened the UAW’s global ties with trips to Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Germany and Italy.
“He has taken the union in some very different directions,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor of labor at the University of California, Berkeley. “He has tried some unprecedented tactics. His emphasis on international links … I think will define the UAW going forward.”
In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, King discussed his tenure so far and what he wants to accomplish before his term ends.
“I never really have thought about it in terms of legacy,” said King, who looks much younger than 67. “I just thought about can we collectively move forward with the best possible wages, benefits and security for our membership. And I think we have been innovative and creative.”
Still an organizing threat
While UAW membership has grown modestly in recent years as the auto industry has rebounded, it is less than a third the size it was (1.5 million members) in the late 1970s.
He is proud of the union’s successes among auto suppliers. In October, a majority of 172 workers at a Faurecia Interior Systems plant in Louisville, Ky., voted for UAW representation.
Last year, the UAW won certification elections at two plants in Cottondale, Ala., one operated by Faurecia and the other by Johnson Controls.
“We’ve won some significant victories in the South where people say workers don’t want unions,” King said.
Lewis Smoak, a founding partner of Atlanta-based Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, said that the UAW remains a powerful force that is closely watched by all automakers.
“All (automakers) are concerned about the UAW’s attempts to organize one or more of the manufacturers who have located in the South,” said Smoak, who represents several suppliers.
King’s best shot: Volkswagen
Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga is King’s best shot for the long-sought assembly plant victory. There, the UAW and members of the German IG Metall union are talking with the German automaker about establishing a German-style works council that would represent employees.
In September, the UAW said a majority of workers at the plant have signed cards saying they are interested in joining the union.
“It definitely can work,” King said. “It is not that different than what we have bargained with the auto companies. Just look at all of the joint programs we have with management and leadership on quality and productivity and training.”
On Nov. 20, Jonathan Browning, Volkswagen Group of America’s president and CEO, told Reuters the German automaker wants to hold a formal vote so its workers can make the final decision.
“Our strong desire is to have a works council present in Chattanooga,” Browning said.
But even with Volkswagen consenting to a union presence, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam have tried to convince Volkswagen that recognizing the UAW will frighten other manufacturers away from investing in the Volunteer state.
Several workers have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board to prevent the process VW and the unions have followed so far.
The Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute even put a message on a billboard near the factory in June that said: “Auto unions ate Detroit. Next meal Chattanooga?”
Samuel Estreicher, director of New York University’s Center for Labor and Employment Law, said the UAW’s interest in establishing a works council in the U.S. presents a number of challenges because of differences between how unions function in Germany and the U.S.
German unions typically represent both salaried and hourly workers, do not have the right to strike and don’t directly negotiate wages. In the U.S., those are core functions of a union.
“I don’t see how it fits in with the U.S legal and labor environment,” Estreicher said.
Another looming hurdle for all unions is Unite Here Local 355 v. Mulhall, a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that could invalidate union elections when a company reaches a “neutrality agreement” with a union. A ruling is expected by the end of June.
Smoak, in a presentation at a manufacturing conference in South Carolina earlier this year, warned that the UAW’s organizing success with Johnson Controls and Faurecia in Alabama is a step toward organizing Mercedes-Benz’s plant in Vance, Ala.
King doesn’t dispute that.
“We have a very innovative campaign there,” King said. “We have made significant progress at Mercedes … with help from the Daimler Works Council and IG Metall,” the same German union helping them in Chattanooga.
In Canton, Miss., the UAW won the backing of some local religious leaders as well as the NAACP in its campaign to organize Nissan’s assembly plant.
According to King, Nissan has resisted the efforts and continues to threaten to leave Mississippi if Canton workers approve the UAW.
“The American management of Nissan chose a very confrontational approach,” King said. “After many attempts where we said to them ‘You are going to give us no choice but to run a global campaign,’ they left us no choice.”
Nissan, in a statement, said King’s allegations of worker threats are untrue.
Four years ago, King signaled that he would use a carrot-and-stick approach when dealing with Asian and European-based automakers.
“I would not want to be a company that is branded as a human rights violator,” King said at an industry conference in 2011.
Whether King or his successor can translate that heated rhetoric into steadfast support from workers who have never been in a union is another matter.
The stakes are very high, as King himself said in January 2011, “If we don’t organize these transnationals, I don’t think there’s a long-term future for the UAW — I really don’t.”