New UAW president vows to be more open to members, public

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 07, 2014 6:03 PM

By Bernie Woodall and Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) - As the United Auto Workers faces what many observers say will be the most difficult contract talks with U.S. automakers in decades in 2015, its new president said more open communication with union members and the public will help at the bargaining table.

Dennis Williams, 61, elected to a four-year term in June, created a small social media department as part of a reshaping of the union's Detroit headquarters and plans to use Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to communicate directly with members in next year's talks, he said in a recent interview with Reuters.

"I don’t have a Twitter account. I don’t have a Facebook or any of that," Williams said.

"I’m not an expert on it, that’s why we hire experts," said Williams.

Recently, the UAW's new chief of General Motors Co relations, Cindy Estrada, showed the union's executive board photos of a plant visit. What struck Williams, he said, was that workers in break rooms were intently staring at smart phones or tablets. He wants to make sure the UAW gets on those screens on a regular basis.

Back when Williams became a UAW member as a welder for agricultural equipment maker J.I. Case in 1977, and when he became a national union representative in 1988, the union could reach workers by putting up notices in plant break rooms, he said.

Using social media is only a part of a wider effort to "educate" UAW members, Williams said. Getting union leadership's message across will be even more important after the current contracts with GM, Ford Motor Co and Chrysler Group, a unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, expire next year and Michigan members can opt out of paying the dues that support the UAW.

Michigan became a right-to-work state after a contentious state legislative session in 2012, and Williams said he knows that anti-union groups will come out in force to convince UAW members to stray.

"I’ve seen Norquist’s comments in the paper," said Williams, referring to Washington small government advocate Grover Norquist, who has vowed to fight the UAW wherever it tries to keep members or get new ones through organizing.

Williams said he also wants the union to be more open to the press. He recently hired a new head of communications, Brian Rothenberg, 48, who is the founder and has been the executive director of the nonprofit liberal political group ProgressOhio.

"I think sometimes we confuse the media as well as our own members on what our objectives (are) and what our goals are," said Williams.

The UAW made strides in openness under Williams' predecessor, Bob King, and used social media to its advantage during the last round of talks with the big American automakers in 2011, said Kristin Dziczek, labor analyst with the Center for Automotive Research.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by James Dalgleish)