US auto union boss warns of weakened power
By Joe Szczesny
March 22, 2011
DETROIT, Michigan (AFP) - Union members have to temper their
expectations at the bargaining table because a steady
decline in membership has eaten away at their power, the
head of the United Auto Workers union said Tuesday.
"We lost sight of how we obtained the power to win those
contracts," UAW president Bob King told the union's
bargaining convention in Detroit.
The UAW was able to win "tremendous" contracts with
employers in the auto, aerospace and agricultural and
construction equipment sectors "because all three sectors
were almost completely unionized," King said.
But those membership rolls have been shrinking steadily as
plants shut down and workers at an increasing number of
plants reject unionization efforts.
The UAW alone has seen its membership fall from 1.5 million
in 1979 to approximately 320,000 today.
Meanwhile, the overall unionization rate in the United
States fell to 11.9 percent last year as the number of
workers belonging to unions declined by 612,000 to 14.7
In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are
available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and
there were 17.7 million union workers.
Auto workers made major concessions in recent years as the
Detroit Three struggled with a steady loss of market share
to Asian competitors and the deepest economic downturn in
decades forced General Motors and Chrysler into government-
backed restructuring under bankruptcy protection.
The UAW has little hope of reversing one major concession
which set up a two-tier system of wages in which new hires
are paid at half the starting wage, King warned members.
"I don't think we can get there (this year) on two tier," he
Part of the union's overall strategy to win back the
concessions is to strengthen ties with other unions in
Europe and in Latin America and work towards unionizing the
US plants of Asian and European carmakers.
Discussions with the German and European unions have been
particularly fruitful as the UAW works to put pressure on
the German automakers MercedesBenz, BMW and Volkswagen to
allow US employees to unionize.
"The German unions have been great," King said. "We have
greater global solidarity in auto."
The UAW is also working with an independent union that is
trying to replace what King described as a "corrupt union"
at a Honda plant in Mexico.
However, he also made it plain that the UAW will work to
address the use of temporary workers who do not receive the
same pay and benefits.
"When (Ford chief) Alan Mulally can make a $54 million bonus
then temporary workers have the right to decent wages and
benefits," said King, noting that many of temporary
employees have been temps years.
King said the union will continue to press for fair
contracts that provide workers a share of the gains from the
economic recovery which has seen Ford and General Motors
post massive profits.
"We're not just fighting for our members, we're fighting for
all workers," said King, adding that the UAW will continue
to fight against Republican efforts to curtail collective
bargaining rights of public and private sector workers in 37
"Unions are under assault like they've never been before,"
he said, adding that members have to get ready for a major
"This is all about the 2012 presidential elections."
Kit Walk, president of UAW Local 653 in Pontiac, stressed
the need for unions to work together to protect all workers.
"We've got to mobilize and talk about the good unions can do
for everybody," Walk told AFP.
Several delegates said two-tier wages and the use of
temporary workers are major issues for members.
Bill Parker, president of UAW Local 1700 in Sterling
Heights, said the union's Chrysler Department has made big
strides in changing temporary workers in to full-time
But he added, "The two-tier wages divides our membership."
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