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King's Gamble

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Bob King , the new president of the United Auto Workers , whose membership is down under 400,000 from a peak of 1.5 million in 1979 is rolling out an initiative to organize foreign auto plants in the U.S., expand the union's reach overseas and forge alliances with social justice organizations.

Ordinarily, the response to these ambitions would be "With What?" Few unions have been beaten down as much as the UAW whose workers enduring the bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009 and a debt-burdened Ford Motor company. During this period the UAW gave up billions of dollars in wages and benefits. Thousands of workers were laid off to save these companies.

Well, for starters, Bob King starts with the union's strike fund. It contains over $800 million. "We have really unlimited resources to devote to this. It's unlike anything that's been seen in the UAW in many, many years," King told The Wall Street Journal .

King would agree with Labor Professor, Harley Shaiken of the University of California, Berkeley, that this "unprecedented effort....is pivotal to its survival." I interpret his remarks to mean that a long declining union has to push forward or its spirit and ranks will shrink further as automation and the taxpayer-rescued auto makers seize the initiative for more concessions.

The UAW's problems start with those earlier concessions that included the astounding two-tier wage system. New workers start at $14 an hour, less than half of what senior workers are paid. If Bob King cannot offer a better deal for non-unionized workers (108,000 of them) at U.S. factories run by Toyota, Honda, Nissan(where the union failed in an earlier organizing drive), and Volkswagen, Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes and Kia, what is going to be the appeal? To make matters more difficult, most of these plants are in so-called "right-to-work" southern states.

First, King is offering 11 principles of cooperation with the auto companies, eschewing confrontation or disruption on both sides, so long as the elections are free and fair. Second he is touting the relationships with domestic companies, saying "The winning team today is the UAW and American employers; with GM, Chrysler and Ford, we are building the best vehicles and have the most productive workplaces."

Soon, however, the UAW begins contract renewal negotiations with these companies which are recovering both their sales, profits and stock values. No doubt, the members will expect their union to fight for a share of this rebound. It may become acrimonious.

Toyota is not worried at all about the UAW's organizing drive announcement. Company spokesman, Mike Goss said that of Toyota's 20,000 U.S. manufacturing plant workers, no hourly employees have ever been laid off despite the economic downturn . The Big Three U.S. manufacturers have laid off workers in droves, many permanently.
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So again what is Bob King's appeal to an auto worker employed by a foreign manufacturer? It is nice that he wants to enlist support of various national citizen groups, including Jesse Jackson's PUSH and chapters of the NAACP. That may be good for publicizing equity, but the Toyota, et al. pay packages are fairly equivalent with those of the U.S. manufacturers.

Mr. King may see leverage in his global strategy to connect with overseas unions and agitate for independent unions in Mexico and Brazil to up auto worker wages there. King is no stranger to social justice movements and protests, having participated personally in marches here and with delegations to El Salvador, Mexico and other third world countries.

Still, it is difficult, to see what he expects to get out of what seems on the surface at least an enormous gamble. Of course, there may be much more between the lines here.

My suggestion is that Mr. King and his colleagues spend a weekend at their union retreat in northern Michigan with some other seasoned thinkers and organizers to ponder how most effectively to spend the union's allotted money.

One needed priority is to set up a small ten person advocacy group in Washington, D.C. to prod OSHA on worker health and safety . That would increase the AFL-CIO's personnel commitment by tenfold for advancing OSHA's responsibility to reduce the loss of nearly 60,000 Americans a year due to workplace trauma and disease, including autoworkers.
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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. His most recent book - and first novel - is, Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us. His most recent work of non-fiction is The Seventeen Traditions.

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