Wearing a maroon United Auto Workers sweater on a sunny spring day, Bob King headed toward a protest at the Michigan state capitol against Governor Rick Snyder’s budget cuts and anti-union policies. A trim, youthful-looking 64-year-old with dark-rimmed glasses, King was elected last summer as president of the UAW, and clumps of smiling union members gave him a minor rock star welcome, taking turns posing for photos with him. A week later, he led a union delegation to temporarily shut down a branch of Bank of America for underpaying taxes and overpaying executives, echoing earlier bank protests over home foreclosures.
King often shows up at protests on behalf of a broad assortment of progressive causes, as he has throughout a career that started at Ford in 1970. He quickly became an electrician, added a law degree, and rose through elected offices to vice-president over organizing, then bargaining with Ford.
Since his election he has led actions to support workers’ struggles on farms, in restaurants and at the Detroit Symphony, as well as in Hyundai factories in Korea and auto plants in Mexico (where the UAW supports organizing by an independent union). He participated in protests against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Army’s notorious School of the Americas. Joining the BlueGreen Coalition, he reached out to environmentalists estranged by the union’s past endorsement of auto company fuel efficiency policies.
Notably, the UAW and the coalition backed “strong” new efficiency standards for 2025, and Obama just set the goal of 54.5 miles per gallon on average by 2025 with support from the UAW and auto companies—only 5.5 miles per gallon short of most environmental groups’ goal.
King is trying to inspire all members each year to commit to five hours of work in organizing, politics and support for labor and community justice campaigns.
“I really believe in getting members active, of being involved in broader struggles,” King says. “I have deep, deep respect for [former president] Walter Reuther. The UAW then was for everyone in society,” for example, funding public employee unionization and civil rights struggles.
But King’s popularity with many members may be severely tested in the coming months. On July 27, King opened talks with the so-called Detroit Three, formerly Big Three, auto makers (even though Chrysler is now owned by Fiat). The greatly reduced ranks of auto workers have given up much of their historic contract gains in the past few years, but King has signaled that the union will focus on job security—defined as keeping fixed costs low and competitive for unionized plants—and an increased emphasis on greater sharing in upside profits. That may be a hard sell to members.
The Detroit Three automakers lost ground from the 1970s onwards to imports and to the transplant factories of Japanese and other foreign multinationals, which the UAW only rarely was able to organize. The UAW lost members—dropping from 1.5 million in 1979 to 377,000 last year. It lost economic and political power. As it focused on survival and increasingly isolated itself, the union lost public support—painfully, unfairly evident in the 2009 bailout debate (“Fuck the UAW,” quoth then–Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, according to Obama auto industry advisor Steve Rattner in his book Overhaul).
The successful bailout and precarious industry recovery have made the Detroit Three profitable and enriched executives like Ford CEO Alan Mulally, who last spring received $26.5 million in pay for 2010 plus a “turnaround” bonus of stock with $56.5 million (“unethical,” King says). It saved the UAW as well, even if less than half its members now are in auto jobs. But the union faces a difficult path to recovery of even a semblance of its influence after World War II when its contracts set national standards, lifting millions of workers into the middle class.