The role of the UAW in the 21st century

United Auto Workers

The following is the speech given by United Auto Workers president Bob King to the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit on January 12, 2011:

Today there is great cause for thanks and celebration.

I am very blessed and very grateful to be here with you as the recently elected president of the UAW.
I am grateful to President Obama for facing up to a great amount of pressure and negative public opinion and deciding that he was going to bet on American companies and American workers even when so many others were unwilling to do so and were more than happy to have our U.S. companies liquidate and have our jobs shipped outside of the United States.

President Obama made the right bet and all of us and really the whole United States won! Easily over a million jobs were saved. And now with the financial turnaround of these companies, tens and tens of billions of dollars are being invested in the United States of America, tens and tens of thousands of good paying, community supporting jobs are being created and maintained, and work long outsourced from the USA is coming back to the USA!

And I want to express my appreciation to General Motors and Dan Ackerson, to Chrysler Fiat and Sergio Marchionne, and to Ford Motor Co., and to Bill Ford and Alan Mulally. All of these strong leaders are committed to rebuilding the American manufacturing base and therefore the American middle class and they are doing it with major new investments and great new products in our American automotive facilities.

In Michigan alone as an example (for we have done this in many states), with great cooperation from government, business, and labor, $6.5 billion dollars in new investments in our auto facilities have been announced creating and maintaining 10,000 direct auto jobs — and at least 60,000 “ripple” jobs! Thank you Ford, Chrysler and GM and thank you former Governor Granholm for your great leadership in making this happen and welcome to new Governor Snyder who we are committed to work with to create more jobs and investment in Michigan.

I also want to thank the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate for their support, and especially our Michigan delegation and the House and Senate leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid for standing up for U.S. companies and U.S. workers!

I am also very proud that in a time when there is increasing polarization in the United States we have been able to demonstrate a level of cooperation and creative problem solving that is so greatly needed in our country. I don’t believe the American public wants ideologies, I believe they want results! Business, labor and the government working together have achieved amazing results that few thought was possible in such a short period of time. All of us cooperated and ALL of us focused on our common goals instead of our differences. Because of our joint efforts America is stronger today, many communities are much better off, and a million families are much better off!

What is the Role of the UAW in a Global Economy?
Fundamental changes in the global economy demand fundamental change in the labor movement. The UAW of the 21st century remains dedicated to the core mission of the labor movement – to create, support and sustain a strong middle class with dignity and respect for every person who works hard and plays by the rules. History clearly demonstrates that democracy cannot survive without a strong middle class, and a strong middle class is built and maintained through the institution of collective bargaining and strong unions. We understand that globalization has radically altered the competitive environment facing the auto sector. Indeed, we have paid the price for failing to learn this lesson quickly enough. The UAW has learned from the past and has embraced dramatic and radical change.

To achieve our mission in this new environment, the UAW of the 21st century has a dual responsibility. One responsibility is to partner with our UAW employers to create growth, strength, competitiveness, and profitability. Our other responsibility is to advocate for a Fair Deal for all workers. A Fair Deal means fair middle class sustaining wages, benefits and pensions. A Fair Deal means a regular employee status vs. temporary status. A Fair Deal means retirement with dignity. A Fair Deal means sharing in the good times as well as sacrificing in the bad times. A Fair Deal means safe neighborhoods and good schools for our kids through fair taxes on good wages and profits. And we know that without the financial success of our employers, there is no economic foundation for a middle class and a Fair Deal. We also know that without a real, enforceable right to organize and collective bargaining, unfettered corporate power will undermine responsible companies and destroy the middle class and any chance for a Fair Deal for all Americans.

The success of the collaboration between the UAW and the unionized automakers demonstrates beyond any doubt the authenticity and intensity of the union’s commitment to our corporate partners. We have shown that cooperation, creative problem solving, mutual respect and common goals can produce extraordinary victories.

Success in a global economy requires innovation. The UAW and our membership celebrate innovation and creativity.

Success in a global economy requires flexibility. The UAW and our membership embrace flexibility and openness.

Success in a global economy requires producing the highest quality products. The UAW and our membership make quality our top priority and we champion the needs of consumers.

The results are in on the UAW’s positive impact working with our UAW-represented employers:

  • We are making the highest quality vehicles.
  • We have the most productive plants.
  • We have best-in-industry attendance by our members.
  • We have extremely high commitment and dedication by UAW members on the shop floor to maintaining the highest quality, the highest productivity and delivering the best product at the best value to consumers.

Working with the UAW is a smart business decision. Every day in every way, the UAW is dedicated to doing whatever it takes to help our employers through innovation, flexibility, continuous cost-saving, quality, and productivity.

With our unionized employers, we have created a culture of trust, teamwork and openness. We have completely discarded the outdated remnants of the “us versus them” mentality that resulted in rigid work rules and narrow job classifications. We have dramatically reduced classifications -- many facilities only have one main production classification. Our members like and embrace the challenge and the flexibility. An observer coming into many of our plants and talking to an employee can't tell which worker belongs to management and which worker is a member of the union because we are all focused on producing the highest quality and best value for customers.

This is all indicative of the UAW’s commitment to taking the high road in all of our dealings with the corporate community. Our mindset is not adversarial. We do not seek conflict. Our agenda is a positive one of shared responsibility and shared prosperity. We do not believe the United States can successfully compete in the global economy if we are divided and polarized.

Our positive and constructive approach and outlook extends to our attitude towards the foreign-owned non-union automakers. We take note of the fact that all of the German, Japanese and Korean automakers have a long history of recognizing and working with unions in their home countries. These relationships show that the transnational companies operating in the United States accept the fundamental right of workers to organize. We want to restart our relationship with these companies by presenting them with an ethical framework that states that American workers have the same right to form unions as the workers in their home countries. American workers, after all, are NOT second-class global citizens.

We call this ethical framework the UAW Principles for Fair Union Elections. This document embodies common sense principles inherent in any democratic election. The underlying principle is that the right to organize a union is a fundamental human right. Workers cannot exercise this right in an atmosphere of fear. Therefore, there must be no threats, intimidation or coercion -- explicit or implicit -- in order to gain votes. Employees have the right to hear equally from both sides. If management gives a 10-minute speech, then the union can give a 10-minute speech. If management posts a notice, the union can post a notice in the same location. Neither party should demonize or disparage the other or engage in untruths. If employees vote to unionize, the parties should promptly bargain for a fair, responsible agreement that keeps the employer competitive. The UAW commits to being a strong partner in making the company competitive and successful.

We have reached out to the non-union auto companies in a spirit of respect to ask that they agree to these principles. We hope that they do, and if so, we look forward to engaging their employees in a free, democratic election process free of acrimony, tension, fear and discord. If employees make a free choice not to join the UAW, we will of course respect that decision, and hope that in the future we will make a better case for the importance of a union for all autoworkers. If the employees do vote to unionize, the UAW will add value and do everything within our power to make the company competitive and successful.

We will closely examine the responses of the non-union companies to this outreach. Actions speak louder than words. A company cannot truthfully say that it respects the right of its employees to organize and at the same time hold mandatory meetings condemning and misrepresenting the UAW. A company cannot truthfully say that is respects the right to organize and at the same time suggest that it would close a plant if employees vote to unionize. A company cannot truthfully claim to respect the right to organize and at the same time tell the employees that a unionized company cannot survive in a competitive environment or that the UAW would jeopardize their benefits. A company cannot truthfully claim to respect the right to organize and at the same time separate out, harass and pressure union supporters.

Why do we propose these principles instead of using the NLRB election process? The National Labor Relations Board election procedures are outdated and ineffective. American labor law simply does not provide a fair framework for union elections. Companies can intimidate, threaten and coerce employees with impunity. There cannot be a fair vote when workers are afraid of losing their jobs. There cannot be a fair vote when workers can hear only one side. There cannot be a fair vote when union supporters are routinely harassed, disciplined, and in some cases even fired. There cannot be a fair vote when supervisors pressure workers one-on-one. There cannot be a fair vote when management can delay the process indefinitely.

There is nothing ethical or moral about the fear-mongering, intimidation and coercion that are a routine part of NLRB elections. Anyone familiar with how union election campaigns take place in this country knows that the single dominant factor in a worker’s decision is fear. The Labor Board election process is fatally, hopelessly flawed.

We intend to hold companies accountable to allow their employees to freely and democratically choose whether or not to join the UAW.

There is no more pressing issue of social justice than the right of workers to organize unions. Freedom of association is a global human right. It is the First Amendment right of workers. Free and independent unions are an essential feature of a democracy. It is the sacred mission of the UAW to hold corporations accountable for respecting this right, both in the United States and around the world. Without the right to organize and bargain there will be no strong, sustainable middle class. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The right to organize and bargain collectively creates the important balance of power between workers and global corporations!

If a non-union automaker violates workers’ democratic rights and rejects these principles, we will commit the entire resources of our union to expose this company’s anti-democratic behavior. We will not stand quietly by while a foreign corporation treats Americans as second class citizens. We will not stand quietly by while a corporation threatens workers for trying to organize a union. We will not stand quietly by in the face of a concerted assault on the middle class and on the institution of collective bargaining.

If a company makes the business decision to engage in anti-union activity and suppress the rights of freedom of speech and assembly, we will launch a global campaign to brand that company as a human rights violator. We are joining with our sister unions in the U.S. and around the world, friends and allies in the U.S. and around the world, and together we will wage a united front to expose and publicize any auto company whose aim is the destruction of the right to organize and the institution of collective bargaining.
We are establishing the UAW Global Organizing Institute whose mission is to recruit young people and other activists to demonstrate globally on behalf of Workers’ Right to Organize Unions.

We do not want to fight with any company. We want to help companies produce the best cars for the best value. We do not want an adversarial relationship. We seek common ground and common goals. We do not want to spend all of our resources to defend the rights of workers to organize; we would rather spend our resources helping to fund innovation and training and collaborative projects.

We do not want to fight, but we will not run from a fight. The UAW will not rest until workers in the United States and globally are guaranteed their First Amendment right to organize and bargain collectively.
Unions are vital to democracy. Unions are essential to social justice. Like any social institution, unions are not perfect. But unions are the sole vehicle throughout history by which working people have gained a voice on the job and a decent standard of living. Just as the UAW helped to build the American middle class, the UAW will now work to build a global middle class. The interests of American workers are inextricably linked to the aspirations and uplifting of the world’s poor.

The best way to achieve global prosperity and as a result global peace is to support workers rights to organize and collectively bargain. We see this need dramatically in China, India, Bangladesh, Mexico, and many other parts of the world

In conclusion I want to emphasize what we see as the fundamental question of this moment in history. The question is not whether unions are perfect. We are not. The question is not whether management would prefer to operate without a union. No doubt, many managers would. The fundamental question is a question of freedom and democracy: whether societies will allow workers who want unions to form unions. The UAW will not rest until that freedom is secured for workers in America and throughout the world.

We are saying to global corporations that the best moral decision AND the best business decision is to work with the UAW and to respect workers democratic right to choose to form their local union or not to! If management and labor in the automotive industry work together we can create a strong global middle class just as the UAW and automotive companies created the U.S. middle class. I believe this is our calling, this is our opportunity: We will together build a better world by together building a global middle class.

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