While applying pressure to U.S. automakers has resulted in some fruitful benefits in the past, United Auto Workers leadership apparently sees it necessary to change tactics going forward.
In stark contrast to his previous rhetoric, UAW president Bob King said that the union is no longer an adversary to automakers, according to Bloomberg. Saying that the UAW seeks a “moderate, pragmatic and inclusive” path, King intends for the union to cooperate with automakers to help ensure that both parties succeed.
Speaking at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island, MI, King said, “The 21st century UAW views management not as an adversary and the enemy, but as a partner.” This comes before current agreements between the Detroit three expire on September 14, the deadline King gave to American automakers to reward $7000 to $30,000 in concessions to workers – who gave up bonuses, raises and cost-of-living adjustments in order for the companies to survive.
The concessions sacrificed by the UAW helped the Detroit three lower labor costs, which the union has since fought to return to the $75-an-hour (including benefits) average it previously enjoyed. In addition, the union agreed to a two-tier system where new hires would earn roughly half the amount paid to senior workers. Wages had been a source of automakers’ financial dilemmas leading up to the bankruptcies of both Chrysler and GM. Of the Detroit three, Ford was the only automaker to avoid bankruptcy, and has especially sought to close the wage gap that exists between UAW employees and employees of competitors, like Toyota and Hyundai, who manufacture in the U.S. but don’t employ UAW members.
When first elected, King took up arms against transplant automakers for refusing to use union labor. After Toyota closed its only unionized plant, NUMMI, last year, King encouraged UAW members to protest Toyota dealerships. King also previously attempted to organize other foreign automakers such as Nissan and Hyundai, hoping to influence employees of other transplant automakers to unionize. In addition to trying to unionize the Detroit three’s competition, King suggested that the UAW also try and unionize suppliers, so that it could have more leverage to drive up wages and benefits for workers in the auto industry.
While such tactics might have been successful in past decades, they’ve gained little ground for the UAW today, which King now claims to be a “21st Century union.”
“Our union has learned many lessons from the crisis in the auto industry, and we are in the process of instituting radical change,” said King. “We recognize we can no longer take the same approach as 20 or 10 or even five years ago.” The choice to take this different approach could be due in part to a significant decrease in membership over the last several decades, with the UAW consisting of just 400,000 members as of January 2011 compared to 1.59 million at its peak in 1979.