Metro Times asks, and the UAW president answers
Published: January 30, 2013
I saw on MSNBC these charts of effectiveness of people spending their money, and for Karl Rove [and his Super-PAC American Crossroads], it was like 2 percent effectiveness. So they can spend all that money, but if we do our job of grassroots organizing and the mobilization of our memberships, and from all these different constituencies, then we can win. So I am encouraged and I am optimistic about 2014.
MT: When you became president of the UAW, lefties that we know, they were excited because you had a long history of not just being a union guy, but someone who looked outside the union at the broader social implications of being progressive. And I was wondering how you think that aspect of yourself has manifested itself in the UAW since you’ve become president?
King: Well, it’s just not me. I think our international board, our regional directors, our officers — there’s a greater openness. We’re really far more open with the press than we were in the past. We have been really pushing a social progress agenda, we’re very involved internationally, we’re very involved publicly, supporting immigrant rights, gay rights, women’s rights. I know it’s not, that’s not just because of me. I mean there are other real progressives that are on the board. The fact that Cindy Estrada is now a vice president of the union is a really positive thing for the UAW. She’s young, she’s dynamic, she’s really socially progressive. So I’m excited about the changes that the board has created. It’s no criticism of anybody else, but I think it is what is necessary for this time.
The other thing that I try to implement — live, I guess — is I think it can’t be an ideological progressiveness, it’s gotta be a pragmatic progressiveness. And so you really gotta look at how do you make progress toward the goals you want, because sometimes in the past, myself or other progressives, we would have an ideological view and there might be progress that could be made, but because it didn’t get us to where we wanted to be, we didn’t get behind it. And we lost because of that. So maybe part of this is just experience, in my time being in the movement, but I pride myself and, want to be anyways, want my goal to be really progressive and to be pragmatic about how you move that agenda without vilifying anybody.
One of my favorite sayings — Archbishop Romero said it, Martin Luther King said it, a number of people said it in different ways — but it’s basically about Christian revenge being conversion. It isn’t smacking down the other person, it isn’t embarrassing or vilifying the other person. It’s getting the other person or group of people to see a better path. So that’s what my pragmatic and philosophical, both, approach is. I really believe that you can bring people together.
What we’ve done in the auto industry, I mean, I’m really proud of that. And our members have a much greater voice every day on the shop floor. There are problems every day in the shop floor, but they have more voice in quality, training and productivity and health and safety and ergonomics, all these things. We were doing an analysis a few months back about German co-determination and what do we do in the U.S., and one of the conclusions was that in Germany they have co-determination by law, in the UAW and the auto industry, we reach co-determination in a lot of areas by contract and bargaining. So we’ve reached a similar result from a way different path. So it’s really interesting, and I’m proud of that. My perception, my belief, is that we have really created a problem-solving relationship and mentality in the auto industry. …
One of the changes is that bargaining is an ongoing process rather than the big contracts every three or four years. Those become less and less big events because we do this continuous problem-solving that benefits us and benefits the companies.
MT: How do you respond to the critics who say that, as part of this pragmatism, too much has been given up? The two-tier structure where people are coming in making $15 an hour. You’re not sending kids to college making $15 an hour.
King: I say this to our members a lot: When I first hired in, 90 days later I was making full pay and I loved the UAW. It was a great thing. So we have not changed, we want equal pay for equal work. We made the sacrifices that were necessary to keep the companies viable, but some people don’t sometimes understand the power of collective bargaining.
Had there not been collective bargaining, all of the sacrifices would’ve been made by the workers, right? They would’ve just come in and slashed wages, slashed benefits, gotten rid of pensions, but because of the workers’ support, the UAW, and their union, we went in and we bargained for equality of sacrifice. We said, “OK, we understand you’re selling half the vehicles you were, you can’t keep 20 plants open if you only need 10. If you keep 20 open, the cancer’s gonna kill everybody. So, we’re going to make the hard choices, people are going to have to move…”
But we honored their seniority, gave them the chance to move, we did all of these buyout packages and we made sure that CEOs took pay cuts, all salaries. …
I would argue that top management, they didn’t take enough. Middle management and lower management, really they got an unfair amount of the burden. But anyways, the main point is, that we made sure that there was equality of sacrifice. At Ford in particular, where I was involved, we had a chart. We said, “OK, how much is top management giving up? How much are salaried employees overall giving up? What are bondholders giving up? Debtholders giving up? What are suppliers giving up? What are dealers giving up?”
We were able to go back to our members and say, “This sucks. We don’t like this, but this is necessary. If you’ve got cancer, you gotta go through chemotherapy. This is necessary to survive. And here’s where they’re making their sacrifices across the board, all the stakeholders, and here’s the path that we get back, and we rebuild the power of the union and our ability to negotiate better contracts.” So the biggest quid pro quo, besides the equality of sacrifice, was the commitments on investments in product.
And you see the results today. We had so many jobs and so much investment guaranteed in the contracts, and the companies are already surpassing that. That’s because we’re so much in this mode of working together and doing the jobs here in the U.S., we’re getting far greater investment. They’ve lived up to the commitments and surpassed them. That’s good for our membership, it’s good for our communities across the country. It’s really a positive outcome.
So I would say to members, “I don’t blame you for being upset. I don’t think it’s fair. But we’re making this progress.”
The other really important point, and I think it will have a big impact on keeping strength and solidarity in the UAW, is the traditional members supporting a contract where they’ve got zero pay increases, and every penny of pay increases went to the new employees. So new employees went from $14 to $15 an hour, by the end of the contract, it’s $19 an hour. That’s a 25, 30 percent raise. It’s not to the $26 where we want to get it, but it’s huge progress. And it shows them that their sisters and brothers who have the seniority appreciate that they have a responsibility to get these people up before they take more for themselves.
And then the profit-sharing that we have, that was a huge breakthrough. We used to get decent profit-sharing checks, it was a cycle, it was a roller coaster, but in Ford and Chrysler, we had some really good profit-sharing. In General Motors, we never got, no matter how good the company did. The formula was so complex and convoluted. And so workers felt it had no relationship to what they did or contributions they made. Honestly, GM is the best of the three right now. … We tried something different. I wish we had done exactly GM profit-sharing with all three companies. You always make some people have some ideas and some ownership and so the committees of Ford and Chrysler wanted do something just a little bit differently. And in Chrysler’s case, it was more the company that we had a problem with.
But at any rate, GM right now is very straightforward. The company makes a billion dollars then every member gets $1,000. The company makes two, then every member gets $2,000. There’s no bullshit. And everybody gets the same. It’s another beauty of the GM agreement. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at entry level. So for entry level, that $7,000 is like another 30 percent raise. So I’m really proud of the way that we handled it. On reflection, I want the entry level to keep demanding that they’re doing the same job they should ultimately get the same pay, so we’ll work on that process and we also gotta do it in a way that keeps the companies viable and competitive. I’m really confident that we can do that long term.
MT: In a way, it seems like building alliances with the progressive community is also pragmatic. By being there for them will help ensure they will be there for you when needed. So that doing the right thing is also pragmatic.
King: And effective. So when the environmental movement comes to us, we’re very supportive, when the women’s movement, when the LGBT community, when the immigrant’s rights, I mean, I’m really proud that we’re one of the unions really out in front and saying we have to have full immigration reform, we gotta have a path to citizenship. Anything less than that is not acceptable. So we need to be there.
In our organizing drives, in most cases, we’ve had a higher percentage of support from African-Americans than we do from white members, and one reason why is because of Walter Reuther and what he did. You know he marched with Dr. King, he was out there. My wife works with the global organizers here and she brags that, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but she says that she’s in the office that Martin Luther King used to have. We’re really proud of that. And Reuther was so far out front, and internally, he went and took locals on, locals who didn’t want African-Americans hired, he put them under an administratorship if they wouldn’t follow the guidelines of the international. So I think he was really a responsible leader doing the right things. As often happens when you do the right thing, it isn’t always popular at the time, but it really pays off in the long run.
MT: Still, for the past 30 or 40 years, there’s been this continuous movement to the right, with the middle class getting more and more squeezed, with more and more concentration of wealth at the top. Why do you think that is, when it goes against the evidence of what’s best for society overall?
King: I guess we, I mean “we” being progressives, have not laid out a clear enough path for people to understand. They [the right] have very effectively used, and this has really dropped off in the last couple years, but they very effectively use social issues — you know, gays, guns and God — to divide people, and they’re not able to do that as well today. And we’ve got a whole big chunk of the faith community that’s part of this now-progressive alliance.
You’ve got some pretty conservative faith leaders today who’re saying we do have a responsibility, a moral responsibility, to the most oppressed, and to people in poverty in our society. So I think there’s a real shift in consciousness. I think also, the point I was making earlier, is that Republicans have so much labeled themselves as just the party of the 1 percent, that I think it opens up an opportunity. …
We have to deliver for the vast majority of Americans if we want them to keep voting for Democrats. They voted for Democrats, I think, because of how extreme the Republicans were. What the Democrats have to do is what FDR did, and that is deliver for people. And I really believe — I’m the eternal optimist — but I think in 2014, you could break history, with a sitting Democratic president, you could get a majority in the House. Especially if they [Republicans] hold the American public hostage over the debt ceiling. I really want to push for change. I think Democrats have to fight a lot harder for change.
But the negative stuff in Michigan — especially Right to Work and Proposal 2 — that’s minor compared to what would have happened if we didn’t elect President Obama. I’m tremendously proud of the role the UAW members in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, all these key states and retirees down in Florida, played in the re-election of President Obama. And all the data shows it. … We really worked extremely hard — on the ground, in the shop floor and in the workplaces, with the members — got great turnouts and great support. Because if we lost, what’s happening in Michigan would be on steroids happening across the country. So I think there are a lot of positives.
It’s clear that if we make an economic agenda and an economic message, I think we can get strong majorities. I think that we can do that in Michigan, I think we can do that in Ohio. I think that a number of places where, in the 2010 tsunami, that we lost, we have a real opportunity to make gains in 2014.
But what I really hope is that it’s not just about 2014 — what we really are committed to is building this broad social justice movement, because the first two years of the president’s administration, we let him down. We can get angry at him, but we didn’t have the ground troops out, we weren’t doing rallies, we weren’t doing demonstrations, we were outmobilized by the Tea Party, so shame on us. So we gotta take responsibility, make sure when you elect somebody, that doesn’t mean you can go to sleep. You gotta push that person, you gotta give them the ground support to do the changes.
MT: You talk about pragmatism versus ideology, but what about those on the left who believe that their ideology should be fought for, because in the long run it makes things better for everybody. That it’s the correct ideology, and that because of “pragmatism,” the Democratic Party keeps moving more and more to the right, and people further to the left are feeling …
King: More abandoned?
MT: Yes. And so to some extent “pragmatism” feels like the enemy.
King: That’s a good point. I think you gotta have values. If you don’t have values, then I don’t think you’re on the right path, or will accomplish good for society as a whole. But we’ve made a mistake in the past — I’ve made a mistake in the past — of being so locked into thinking, “OK, here’s the end goal, and this is what I believe I want to achieve, and anyone who doesn’t support that 100 percent, then they’re not my ally.” That’s a mistake.
I remember sitting down with a former activist in the UAW, a really good person, who said, “Listen, there’s a continuum of where people are at. From here’s the right, here’s the left.” He said, “You work with everybody in that continuum.” The way he said it was, “The revolution isn’t coming tomorrow. You’re not going to achieve all you wanted.”
That was his way of saying, “You’re not going to achieve the ideal. So you work with everybody along that continuum to make things better.” When I say “ideological,” part of what I’m saying is “uncompromising,” that there’s only one way to do it. Gandhi said there’s truth in every position, right? So that’s what I mean about being pragmatic and willing to compromise, and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good … by understanding that the path is never straight.
I remember one of Reuther’s quotes was about when you’re climbing the mountain, sometimes you gotta go sideways, sometimes you gotta go down to find a path up. And so that’s what I mean by being pragmatic. It’s not giving up the values, it’s not giving up the moral or the spiritual beliefs, and the right of every human being and the dignity of every human being, but believing that anyone knows the only path to get there, or the right path — that just isn’t real to me.
MT: But do you think that, as part of the process, that it’s necessary to have the bomb-throwers, people holding their ground, making demands, to keep the “pragmatists” moving things in their direction? Where is that on the left now?
King: I think that there isn’t anything comparable to the Tea Party, nothing as large. There’s no funders like the Koch brothers on the left. But I think there is an ideological left, and I think there are people who are really pushing for the ultimate.
MT: Traditionally, the labor movement has been part of the bedrock for that, hasn’t it?
King: Yeah, and I hope it still is. And I think it’s gotta re-establish itself as still being a part of that. To make progress, I think, my experience is, whether it’s in contract bargaining or social issues, you’ve gotta be strategic and pragmatic.
MT: The point is…
King: Yeah, I know. I don’t have a good answer. Because it is important to have people who are further out than you are on issues, and pushing for more, to gain more faster. Because in some ways that gives you the ground to achieve more in your pragmatism than if that group didn’t exist.
MT: Let’s shift gears a little. The other night, on the TV show 60 Minutes, one of the segments dealt with the issue of robotics and the degree — and the accelerating degree — to which robots are replacing human workers. Certainly, the auto industry is one place that’s a big factor. How much do you see what’s going on as sort of this historical shift? How much time do you spend thinking about how we are going to deal with this — the replacement of human workers?
King: That’s a huge issue. Back when I was in my local union, we did a headline paper that created a stir in the UAW talking about Harley Shaiken, who was doing a lot of work in automation and new technology, and making predictions about the kind of impact it would have on jobs, and that the union should be thinking about it more. So there was a small group of us who were advocating for that. There were councils and meetings and stuff saying we gotta pay more attention to this. And a lot of things that have happened today [that] Harley was predicting back then. It was hard for people to accept that change would come that fast, be that dramatic.
So I think that it is important to look at, but you can’t be Luddites, right? You can’t oppose it just to oppose it, because it can produce a better product at a better price for the consumer. I think ultimately that’s our goal too. So what you want to make sure is that you gain as many jobs as you can. For instance, we’ve been advocates in many workplaces that have work teams that don’t need supervision, because workers know it better. They don’t need someone standing over them. So you try to make progress in that way.
The reality is to me that technology is going to mean a shrinking manufacturing workforce, and so you try to bargain for and legislatively work for safety net systems that retrain workers, safety net systems that give workers an opportunity to start their own business or do something different.
It’s just like what we went through at Ford, where it was like 35,000 people during the crisis that we lost. But none of those were through involuntary layoffs. People took buyouts, people took education leaves, people took early retirement. You try to take a humane path, so that it doesn’t mean involuntary layoffs for people; but as those reductions come you got to have process so that the members and their families are taken care of.
MT: Is part of that because, ultimately, capitalism has to be protected against itself? Because unless that money keeps flowing back in and lifting society up, then it’s going to destroy itself?
King: I frame it a little bit differently. I would say that austerity economics is crazy, and that we’re seeing all over the world that austerity economics does not work.
Austerity economics brings more pain, more suffering, more financial collapse, and so we need to be looking at what Brazil has done, or Finland, just a couple countries that have gone against that. And then trying to show people, remind people of our own history, that the whole country made more progress when progress was more equal. Even if you break it down into quintiles, even the top fifth had more gains when everybody was growing, when the middle class was growing, when more people had collective bargaining rights, and so they were bargaining better wages and benefits. And nonunion workers benefited because that became the new standard in the community, our new benchmark in the community.
If simplified, one of my goals — and for the UAW as an institution — is that we want to build a global middle class. What we did in the U.S., by raising people out of poverty, creating middle-class jobs — in the auto industry, the steel industry, teamsters, happening in all these different areas — we want that to happen globally.
The only piece today that you’d have to be aware of and thoughtful about and strategic about is that you want to do it in an environmentally sustainable way too. But I think that you really can do that.
If you could gain collective bargaining rights globally, then you could build a global middle class, and then there would be the consumers that would buy the services, donate to charities, donate to their faith community, whatever. The whole society does better when working families have a middle-class standard of living.
Obviously, there’s not enough people who really understand that today or our policies would be a lot different. But I think that’s part of the economic agenda that we have to put out there.
MT: Well, I think that’s all the questions I came with. What didn’t we touch on?
King: You know what’s really exciting to me? The work that we’re doing on global networks. The work that we’re doing to try to build more real international solidarity.
There are a number of global union federations [organized] basically by sector. The manufacturing global union used to be called the IMF, International Metalworkers Federation, and now has just combined a number of manufacturing global union federations into one called Industrial. So we work very closely with them, and they’ve had a goal for a number of years to set up networks in any global company, a network that comes together at least once a year that talks about what’s going on in that corporation in every part of the world.
The Germans, the Europeans, have been leaders in pushing for that in a lot of the European companies. They’ve set up global union networks or gotten global framework agreements that protect workers’ rights to organize globally.
They’ve been critical of us, and I would argue fairly critical of us, because we hadn’t done that with American corporations. So we built a network when I was the vice president of Ford, and we began the Ford Network. In this last set of bargaining in our contract, we got the company to recognize the global union network, and that they would financially support a meeting once a year with representatives from this global union network, and so that’s been really positive.
And General Motors, we’ve got a two-year pilot program we negotiated. In Chrysler we didn’t get it, but we’re working and we built a network independently, which is what we did at Ford. We built it just as unions and then we made it a collective bargaining issue. That’s really important. …
It’s something that was Reuther’s vision. The UAW had an international affairs department long before most other unions, and so that’s kind of a re-energizing, reinvigorating of the vision and a real path of how do you do it.
In our organizing drives today, we get really wonderful help and really meaningful help from the German unions, the Japanese unions. We’ve built really good relationships with them, beginning to get them more engaged. You have to respect those cultures. So that’s really exciting. We’ve been doing work in Mexico to help independent unions. We’ve had organizers actually down there training Mexican organizers. If any of our companies are involved in new plants in other parts of the world and they’re not recognizing unions, and we’re meeting with Ford or GM or Chrysler to say that you have to recognize the union here, using our relationships and our influence to make sure that workers rights are respected in different parts of the world.
MT: Do you find that, what you’ve described as the UAW of the 21st century and the pragmatic approach that you are pursuing, are the corporations responding to that?
King: This conservation is good because you want to be both visionary and pragmatic. There’s got to be that balance between the two. You don’t want to sell short where you want people to be, so you want to create a vision that you’re striving for and other people are striving for. You also want to have a good strategy of how to get there, which involves pragmatism. So, to Ford’s credit, they signed agreements, for the life of the agreement, agreeing to fund, partially fund really, the global union network meetings once a year. Alan Mulally himself has come in to meet with those global union leaders. It’s been really meaningful and powerful, like a South African leader would never get an opportunity in normal situations to voice a concern with Alan Mulally, and it’s really constructive. In those meetings, we talk about labor issues, worker issues, human rights issues, and we also talk about how do we make sure the company is successful because that’s what our membership is.
MT: In some ways it seems part of what you’re dealing with is the foreign-owned companies are more progressive in their home countries than they are here.
King: Yes, outrageously. It’s just unbelievable. I also think that one of the things that I believed in for a long time and advocated long time that we’re doing now is that we’re saying, “OK, we’re going to try the high road with these companies.” We’ve reached out to all the foreign auto manufacturers that listened, and said, “Here’s our philosophical beliefs. If you give your workers a free democratic right to decide if they want to be in the UAW, if they say no, we’ll shake your hand and say you were honest and fair and workers decided. But if they say they want to be in the union, then you’ve got to recognize that and we’ll bargain with good faith like we do with the Big Three, and part of our goal is the success of the company also.” So we actually think we improve work places, we’ve got better quality, better productivity, more highly energized membership because they know they’ve got respect and dignity and they know they’ve got a voice.
Some companies have responded, and we’re in some good discussions with some. Others, like Nissan, we spend a lot of time and we have had good support from the JAW, Japanese Auto Workers, in trying to convince them to take a different path. What happens is that all their public statements are right, about the UN Global Compact, about the International Labor Organization standards, and the OECD standards and they’re going to honor those, but in reality their American management doesn’t. Their American management violates those global principles every day.
What we’ve decided in the UAW is that we’re going to take on a global fight. That’s not going to be limited to the U.S. We’re not going to waste our time in the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] because it’s not a fair process, it does not allow for fair elections. So if they don’t honor those workers, if they do what they’re doing now in Nissan camp — threatening workers, threatening to close the plant, reassigning workers, putting pressure, doing meetings sometimes with one worker and one manager and one worker with three or four or even five managers at one time, trying to pressure people not to support the union — then we’re going to take on this global fight. We’re going to brand them as a global human rights violator.
And I think because in the auto industry it is so much about brand image, I think that’s something that could be really effective and for the first time we’re really taking that on. It takes a lot of resources to do it, but I think it’s the right thing to do.
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