United Auto Workers President Bob King faced several audiences when his union opened a three-day convention in Detroit today to finalize its strategy for new-contract talks with the Big Three US automakers.
His opening speech to the UAW rank-and-file tried to convince them that the union will fight for their interest in restoration of wage and benefit cuts they sustained during the Great Recession and federal takeover of General Motors and Chrysler.
"The more jobs we can bring back under the umbrella of the collective agreements … the more power we have," he told attendees during a speech in which he also took aim at Ford CEO Alan Mulally's compensation.
“When Alan Mulally can make over $50 million in a bonus, temporary workers have a right to a decent job and benefits,” King said.
That opening salvo must have made for some interesting meetings today with Ford, GM, and Chrysler execs, viewed as a litmus test for whether the UAW is willing to tie more of its future compensation to the automakers’ own growth and profitability, as company executives have been requesting.
The UAW president also will be nodding toward the public-union unrest in Michigan, Wisconsin and other Midwestern states — where there also happen to be big portions of his membership — trying to persuade the American people that auto workers’ struggle for a better life is part of the same fateful drama.
And finally — and, arguably most important — King is on a charm offensive, promoting the UAW brand to foreign-owned automakers in America. He has already served notice to the likes of Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, BMW, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz that the union wants to be free to organize their workers. Understandably, King has gotten a tepid reception from these “transplant” operators.
But now, King has an opportunity in bargaining with the Big Three to demonstrate to these other automakers that the UAW is a reasonable entity whose leadership understands that corporate success is the key to long-term worker prosperity. If King and his colleagues reach for too much at the Big Three bargaining tables in a short-term bid to recover pocketbook losses for their members, they might well doom their new organizing effort before it really starts.
The UAW brand is beaten and battered. King wants to restore some luster by winning a foothold in foreign-operated plants in the U.S. – a UAW pipe dream for 30 years. And the first big step toward his goal starts today.