As expected, Bob King has been elected to replace Ron Gettelfinger as president of the United Auto Workers union. After being nominated by Gettelfinger last spring, some had predicted his election during the union’s annual national convention to be simply a formality. Instead, he was opposed by Ford Motor Company UAW Local 600 “A” Crew Bargaining Committeeman and union activist Gary Walkowicz. Walkowicz’s opposition necessitated a lengthy roll call of convention delegates.
King drew criticism during the convention over his calls for additional concessions. In particular, King was criticized by Walkowicz and other members for advocating the union concede to a non-strike clause in its contract with Ford. General Motors Company and Chrysler Group received the concession last year as they underwent Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. UAW rank-and-file overwhelmingly rejected Ford’s request for the concession.
Throughout King’s UAW career, he has advocated strong partnerships with parts suppliers and supported the two-tier contract concession that offers new hires lower wages and fewer benefits than more senior members. The two-tier concession was agreed to in 2007. Walkowicz said such cooperation with automakers is a losing strategy which has led to division within the union.
King, who rose through the ranks during his 40 years with the union, assumes the reins at a critical time. Since 1979, union membership has fallen from 1.5 million to 355,000. Clark University labor professor Gary Chaison said, “Bob is facing a very, very difficult job because there will be tremendous pressure on him to roll back the concessions. He’s got to walk a very fine line to reverse some of what was lost and keep some in place for the promise of a brighter future.”
UAW members have each given up between $7,000 and $30,000 in concessions over the past five years. Concessions have included the reduction or complete elimination of raises, cost-of-living adjustments and bonuses in addition to the two-tier wage plan. New hires now make $14 per hour on average; this is about half what their tenured counterparts make.
Although King’s pragmatic style has drawn criticism from many within the union, he has also shown himself to be an effective negotiator. In January, King filed a grievance after Ford Motor Company reinstated 401(k) matching funds and raises and tuition assistance for salaried union workers only. The automaker has since reinstated tuition assistance for its 41,000 hourly workers as well.
UAW director Rory Gamble runs King’s former Detroit region and has gotten to know him well over the past 25 years. Gamble said, “Bob’s going to make sure our members are not forgotten,” but added, “we’ve got to make sure these companies are viable, so there’s going to be a lot of caution in how we go after this.”
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