King’s UAW Legacy Includes International Spotlight, Improved Industry Relations

“I have an upbeat view,” King says, adding that unions around the world understand the auto industry is a global industry and workers need to stick together to ensure they are treated fairly.

Joseph Szczesny

June 2, 2014

5 Min Read
King Before unions auto jobs werenrsquot middleclass jobs
King: Before unions, auto jobs weren’t middle-class jobs.

When Bob King became president of the UAW in 2010, one of his objectives was to rebuild the union's image, and one of the ways he did that was by going abroad, even though the organization had been battered by the Great Recession in the U.S.

While tangible results are slim, King, who will step down in early June, contends his extensive travels in Europe and Asia have increased the UAW’s visibility and brought unions representing auto workers around the globe closer together in the fight for workers’ rights.

"We have really dramatically raised the profile of the UAW in Europe and elsewhere,” King says in an interview, while acknowledging he was disappointed by the union’s recent defeat in an organizing drive at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, TN.

Nevertheless, the increased visibility has helped the UAW shine a light on what King describes as the abuse of workers’ rights in the South, where he says employees wanting to unionize have been faced with interference from company management.

“It's one of the things that I feel really good about,” King tells WardsAuto of his forays overseas. “I think that will pay benefits long term in helping the UAW in organizing the transnationals and keeping auto jobs middle-class jobs.”

It also has become much easier for him to make the case that a non-union plant in the U.S. is a threat to the jobs and incomes of auto workers in such places as Germany and Brazil.

“Before unions, auto jobs weren't middle-class jobs,” notes King, who has been active in the UAW for 45 years, ever since he went to work for Ford.

The German metalworkers union, IG Metall, and the Volkswagen Works Council, which includes representatives of the company's 500,000 employees around the world, continue to support the UAW's efforts to organize VW's Chattanooga plant, where the union lost a 712-626 ratification vote in February. The UAW is eyeing another round of voting sometime next year.

"They have been very supportive and continue to be very supportive," King says of the German groups.

While union organizers have been held at bay at Nissan’s Canton, MS, plant, the UAW has succeeded in maintaining pressure while educating unions from around the world about the difficulties of organizing plants in the South, despite international treaties that guarantee workers everywhere the right to join unions.

"Union-busting in the United States is a billion-dollar industry," King says, noting that during the past four years the UAW has brought union members, students and political activists from around the world to speak with workers in places such as Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.

"They were frankly shocked with what they saw," he says.

King Takes 'Upbeat View'

The Japanese Auto Workers union, whose leadership has visited plants in the southern U.S., also has been supportive, King says, as has the metalworkers union in Brazil.

"Representatives of the Japanese Auto Workers union have been down to the Nissan plant in Mississippi and they issued a pretty strong statement about the company's violation of global labor standards," the UAW official says.

Pressure from Japanese unions played a role in the reinstatement of two pro-union workers at Nissan’s Canton plant, though the automaker contends no employees have been fired due to union activity.

“I have an upbeat view,” King says, adding that unions around the world understand the auto industry is a global industry and workers need to stick together to ensure they are treated fairly by the giant multinationals that rule the car business.

Brazilian unions, for example, are helping the UAW build strong and independent unions in Mexico, where the auto industry has poured billions of dollars into new plants in recent years, with more investment expected.

"Even among academics there is a growing understanding of the importance to democracy of having a middle-class society and middle-class jobs that pay good wages," King says.

Meanwhile, the outgoing union president considers the UAW’s 2011 negotiations with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler a success, despite sharp criticism over the inclusion of a 2-tier wage system that breaches the union’s traditional policy of equal pay for equal work.

“We wanted to rebuild the American auto industry with that contract, which we did,” King says. “The amount of investment that we won was unprecedented, $20 billion. (The industry) bounced back, and we’ve rebuilt our membership by adding thousands of new members.

“We’ve continued to work with (GM, Ford and Chrysler) on solving problems at all three companies,” he adds. “We know nobody has more at stake than the people, management and hourly, out on the shop floor.

“Top executives come and go; shareholders come and go. I'm not worried about them. I'm worried about the people that stay.”

King says the union wants a constructive relationship with the companies that employ its members. "We want to be open, collaborative and transparent.”

Although he doesn’t rule out remaining active in the union in some capacity, King declines comment on one scenario that has him retaining his seat on the board of supervisors at Adam Opel, GM’s German arm. Another union official slated to retire next week, Joe Ashton, will take a seat on the GM board this summer.

Seat on Opel Board TBD

King says the Opel decision will be up to the union’s next president, expected to be Dennis Williams, currently secretary-treasurer. Voting will take place this week in Detroit at the UAW Constitutional Convention held every four years.

If King remains on the Opel board, he will continue to have regular contact with his allies at IG Metall.

“I intend to remain committed to the UAW, just as I have for 45 years,” he says. “If Dennis asks me to participate, I'll do everything I can to help him and help the union. But the UAW has always been a union with a strong president, and that’s his decision.”

Before leaving office next week, King will ask the UAW Constitutional Convention to raise the union’s monthly dues for the first time since 1967.

The increase is necessary both to rebuild the union strike fund and to combat political threats from conservative groups and their backers, such as brothers Charles and David Koch, who control oil refiner Koch Industries and reportedly have helped financed anti-union campaigns in such states as Michigan and Tennessee.

“We’ve made our mistakes. But they really have spent a lot of money to create a negative image of us,” King says of the Koch brothers. “We can beat them with people power like we did in the 2012 (U.S.) presidential campaign. But we also need resources for all these campaigns.

“You can’t let people like the Koch brothers buy elections and destroy democracy.”

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