Can the UAW’s Bob King Bring Auto Union Power Back?

Can the UAW’s Bob King Bring Auto Union Power Back?

Can the UAW’s Bob King Bring Auto Union Power Back?

King’s progressive credentials are impressive, but his popularity with members will be tested as he goes up against the Big Three in tough contract talks.


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.

King has sketched out ambitious plans for such a revival based on mobilizing members, strengthening the progressive movement, organizing the four-fifths of the domestic auto workers not in unions (especially the assembly transplants) and forging more vigorous international alliances. “Our goal is not just rebuilding the UAW,” he says, “but rebuilding the American middle class and building a global middle class.”

More controversially, King argues that to realize its traditional goals the union must drastically remake its strategy: it must take responsibility for the success of unionized employers in order to gain job security in a global auto market. For King that means pushing for high quality products and raising productivity to meet or beat the non-union competition. With union help, such as winning management acceptance of members’ ideas that made the new Taurus launch a big success, the Detroit Three have largely met those goals recently.

“In a global economy, to protect our members, to have long-term job security, the company has to succeed,” King told business students at the University of Michigan. “You have to give the consumer the best product, the best value. Thirty years ago our only job was to get our fair share. But today you can’t do that…Today our focus is making sure we have the best product, best value, highest productivity. If we’re growing our market share, that’s the best way to get job security…[and] to be aligned with the companies in producing the best quality product at the best price.”

Their professor, former American Motors Chairman and CEO Gerald Meyers, exclaimed, “That’s all new. Historically, I never heard words like that coming from a head of the UAW.” But the roots of King’s strategy sprouted in the 1970s with union vice-president Irving Bluestone, whom GM flatly rebuffed when he tried to discuss product quality. Over the years a regime of joint company-union committees and appointees grew as the union did align itself increasingly with its employers and often made monetary concessions and relaxed work rules to help the companies. King pledges flexibility, saying workers enjoy variety (especially skilled worker teams with no supervisor). But workers and bosses hold mirror images of flexibility: each wants control over what the worker does, and the question is resolved by a balance of power. Internal union critics—traditionalists, King says—like former regional director Jerry Tucker warn that King’s strategy courts the risk that the companies want “jointness” to neutralize and weaken the union even more than to boost productivity.

Recent contractual changes make labor costs only a few dollars an hour higher at the Detroit Three than at established transplants. But as non-union companies increasingly set industry standards, the UAW does not want to put its employers at a disadvantage (even though Center for Automotive Research chief economist Sean McAlinden figures final assembly labor accounts for only 7 to 11.5 percent of the cost to build a car or light truck). Those limitations will weigh heavily on the union in the coming contract talks. Auto workers retain a will to fight: Ford workers, for example, lopsidedly refused to give up to healthier Ford concessions wrung out of GM and Chrysler workers in the bailout. Many workers hope to reverse recent concessions (which King figures at $7,000 to $30,000 a year), especially creation of a second-tier wage for new-hires of under $15 an hour, roughly half the $28 hourly wage of established workers (and even other tiers of temps and workers for subcontractors in the plants).

The UAW historically tried to provide members secure, predictable incomes, but King believes that the union now needs to “keep the base rate as high as we can, but not bargain fixed rates that make us non-competitive.” Instead it should increase the rewards from profit sharing—and the transparency of calculating such bonuses—when times are good, even though it shifts risk to workers.

The transplants have relied heavily on temporary workers (yet often provide core workers security), but King attacks the Detroit Three for using such long-term, low-pay temps. On the other hand, although he largely agrees that two-tier pay violates the principle of equal pay for equal work and threatens worker solidarity, King says, “I don’t think it will be eliminated in my term, because we don’t have the transnationals organized” and thus lack power to take wages out of competition, the classic union goal King embraces.

Indeed, some analysts think that the union may use the lower-tier workers, who face an uncertain path to higher pay, as a means of persuading the Detroit Three to bring back outsourced union work. The companies will almost certainly force local unions to compete for new work by lowering standards, as they have already often done. Despite King’s search for security, GM says it will not make any promises for where products will be produced (for example, in several plants threatened with closing) just to resolve contract negotiations, and the bailout terms prohibit the UAW from striking either GM or Chrysler, leaving the union little leverage.

In his critical drive to organize assembly transplants, King and organizing director Richard Bensinger have developed a novel strategy to change the threatening and undemocratic tactics employers use to defeat unionization. The union first offers employers the carrot of teamwork with a union that is “fundamentally and radically different from the UAW of the past.” It then asks them to change as well and respect the human, democratic right to organize a union free from threats or financial promises, with union and company having equal access to the workers before secret ballot votes.

If management refuses, then the union will mount a global campaign to brand the company as contemptuous of human rights. Already the UAW has recruited young people from countries like Germany, China, India and Brazil for its Global Organizing Institute to conduct such campaigns in critical markets and has beefed up support from the global labor movement. King hopes to complete at least one organizing drive this year (and initial talks between the union and German managers suggest that might occur at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee factory).

The UAW plan is among labor’s most important recent unionization efforts. Skeptics say it tries to organize the companies more than workers. Without first raising union standards sharply, they contend, the union gives transplant workers little financial motivation to join. But King says the union offers “respect, due process, and the opportunity to have a greater voice,” often the most powerful reasons for joining a union.

Germany is King’s touchstone, with union representation on corporate boards and factory works councils. But the German union also has power backed by complete industry unionization and legal mandates for co-determination. Both create a different basis for cooperation, including wages over $50 an hour in its export-conscious auto industry. Without power, a union cooperates more on management’s terms than its own. But with limited power and a recent near-death experience, UAW options narrow. University of California, Berkeley, labor specialist Harley Shaiken says, “I think they’re making [their offers to the companies] because they can’t see an alternative given the state of the industry and their power in it.”

King would like the UAW to bring an alternate vision of the future of the automobile industry to the bargaining table, one that represents worker, consumer, public and even parts-supplier interests—and takes into account what the company needs to be viable. That will require more than aligning the union with the success of the company. It will require realigning the company’s plans with workers’ needs and the public interest, an undertaking that ultimately relies on independent union power from the shop floor on up. With its complex balancing of goals, King’s high-stakes strategy is the labor equivalent of a juggler riding a bicycle on a tightrope, but if it works, the union could win back influence that is critical for workers in auto and beyond, as well as for the broader progressive movement.

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