Retiring UAW chief sees road paved for union gains in South

Reuters News
Posted: May 30, 2014 6:16 PM

By Bernie Woodall

DETROIT (Reuters) - Retiring United Auto Workers President Bob King said that while he did not achieve his goal of organizing a foreign-owned auto plant on U.S. soil, he believes he laid the groundwork for more than one to be brought into the union fold in the next president's term.

King, 67, said the UAW remains actively involved in talks with Volkswagen AG about representing workers at a Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant, where the union lost a close vote in February despite having tacit support from VW.

He said cooperation with the German union IG Metall will help the UAW eventually gain representation at VW in Tennessee, Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama and BMW's plant in South Carolina.

"I think you’ll see representation at Volkswagen and at Mercedes and at BMW," King told Reuters in an interview on Friday. "I think that within the next term, you will see the UAW get across the goal line on more than one.”

Current UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams, who heads a slate of officers nominated by union leaders last November, is expected to be elected president for a four-year term at the UAW's convention next week.

The UAW reversed a long slide in membership during King's four years as president, gaining 10 percent to 391,415, but that is still down 40 percent from 654,657 a decade ago.

King said he does not regret saying in January 2011 that the union's long-term future depends on organizing foreign-owned automakers.

"You are not going to have the auto industry providing middle-class jobs if we don’t organize the whole industry. It’s our members and the workers who don’t have representation yet who are tied at the hip."

When King joined the UAW in 1970 at Ford Motor Co, U.S. automakers Ford, General Motors Co and Chrysler, now a part of Fiat SpA, dominated the U.S. market. Then, as now, nearly all hourly workers at those U.S. companies were in the UAW, making for a powerful union.

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But the union's negotiating power has diminished as the three U.S. companies try to keep wages competitive with nonunionized automakers from Japan, South Korea and Germany, which all have a U.S. plant.

King said the election last week of Gary Casteel, a UAW regional director, as deputy chairman of a Daimler world employee council "is a pretty strong statement of support for organizing in Alabama."

He said part of his legacy is advancing cooperation between the UAW and unions in other countries to enhance workers' rights to organize and to bargain collectively. King mentioned Germany, Japan, Mexico, India, Thailand, Russia and Brazil.

"The ultimate goal is to build a global middle class. I think we’ve made some real progress there."

(Editing by Matthew Lewis)