Metro Times asks, and the UAW president answers
Published: January 30, 2013
When the Michigan Legislature rammed through Right to Work legislation in a lame-duck session late last year, and Gov. Rick Snyder quickly signed the bill into law, labor unions in general and the United Auto Workers in particular were put on the defensive. Pushing Prop. 2, a failed measure that sought to enshrine the right to collectively bargain in the state constitution, had been a grievous tactical error, provoking retaliation from Snyder. At least that was the way the issue was generally reported.
But UAW President Bob King had an entirely different take on how and why things played out the way they did when he recently sat down with Metro Times news editor Curt Guyette for a lengthy interview at Solidarity House, the union’s headquarters in Detroit.
Looking ahead, King said that defeating Snyder when he runs for re-election and attempting to put the state Legislature back in the hands of Democrats will be a primary goal for labor in 2014. Snyder, who received some union backing when he first ran, has shown himself to be anything but the moderate he claims to be, said King. And it’s not just Right to Work.
In a far-reaching conversation, King talked about his philosophical evolution, and defended the “pragmatic”approach he has come to embrace in terms of both labor-management relations and politics. He talked about the changing “brand image”of the UAW and the radicalization of the Republican Party. The conversation also encompassed the worldwide fight for worker’s rights in a global marketplace, the conflict under way with Japanese automaker Nissan, and the challenges rapid advances in technology pose to workers.
What follows is an edited version of our conversation with King, who first joined the UAW when hired by Ford in 1970, and became the union’s leader in 2010.
Metro Times:Let’s start with the Right to Work issue. It was reported that before pursuing Prop. 2 — the union-backed ballot measure that sought to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution — that Gov. Snyder told you that doing that would push the state Legislature to pass Right to Work legislation. Is that true?
Bob King:Let me give you the full story — back from the point that he first ran for governor, and the carpenters [union], as you probably remember, endorsed him. But one of the reasons they endorsed him is because he said, “I’m not a Right to Work advocate, it’s not on my agenda.” So that gave them comfort, because that was a major concern. It was one of the key reasons they ended up supporting him.
After he was elected, to his credit, he’s been open to meet and talk. And so we’ve had a number of discussions about the state, about jobs, about state employees. And whenever we would raise the Right to Work — and we wouldn’t raise it that often in the beginning — but when we would hear rumblings from the [Amway billionaire Dick] DeVos camp or the radical right of Republican Party, then we would raise it. And [the governor] would say, “It’s not on my agenda.”
But then there was a whole series of legislation that he said was not on his agenda that he signed. There were [university] research assistants being denied collective bargaining rights. There were home health care workers, who were given some really strong assurances that collective bargaining rights would not be taken away from them. And that’s much more serious, honestly, than Right to Work; denying them the right to collective bargaining. And yet, after … a long process and tense discussion with folks and after been given that commitment, the Legislature passed it, it went to the governor’s desk, he signed it. Then we had the dues deduction for the teachers. And so, again, that was petty and vindictive and he said it wasn’t on his agenda. And when it got to his desk, what did he do? He signed it.
So he talks this moderation, but every extremist bill that [the Republican-controlled Legislature] passes — there are one or two exceptions— but overwhelmingly, he signs them. So we said, “Jeez, this guy says it’s not on his agenda, Right to Work, yet he’s signing legislation that’s more harmful to workers than Right to Work.” So he didn’t have any credibility with us at that point.
MT:Was the emergency manager law, which let appointed officials void agreements that were arrived at through collective bargaining, also a factor?
King:Sure, because that’s taking away democratic rights. We talked to him about that, we told him our opposition to that. He said, “Well, I understand that. We’re looking at a different approach because we understand the issues that are being raised, you’ll know what’s happening then.”
So, at that point, it was a concern for us because it was taking away democratic rights. But the ones that really caused concern for us were the ones that I mentioned to you. So we in labor said, ‘You know, we can’t just sit and wait for the lame duck, we know it’s coming, this has been a 10-year, at least, effort by DeVos and other right-wingers — the Koch brothers were also involved. So it was our leadership responsibility to try and head this off. So we put together Proposal 2. We knew that we had an uphill battle in terms of polling, but we had a strategy of how to get enough majority votes to win. Obviously we made some mistakes in that process because we didn’t win.
MT:What do you think those mistakes were?
King:Well let’s stay with your other question. I’ll have to come back to that. …
So we had this history, and when the governor and I talked about the petitions, he said he’d rather not have it come up. And I cited the things he’d already signed. I said, “Will you publicly commit not to sign Right to Work?” And he would not do that.
I also offered to meet with business leaders if he would convene a meeting. I said, “Let’s get the issues on the table … let’s do creative problem-solving. Let’s hear what the business community has to say, what issues they have, and what concerns they have, and let’s see if we can address them. And if we can, then I’m willing to do two things. I’m willing to bring other labor folks to the table and I’m willing to recommend, if we come up with something, a better path that wouldn’t involve the ballot proposal.”
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