DETROIT INTERVIEW: UAW president Bob King
“We are part of a broad coalition for more economic fairness"
Bob King was elected UAW president in June, 2010, by delegates at the UAW's 35th Constitutional Convention in Detroit. King, who is known for his activism and passionate beliefs in social and economic justice, served three terms as a UAW vice president. In his last term as vice president, he directed the Ford, Severstal, and Competitive Shops/Independents, Parts and Suppliers (IPS) departments. He talked to Simon Warburton at last week's Detroit Auto Show.
j-a: Nissan workers staged a press conference at the Detroit Show protesting about the lack of union recognition in Mississippi - what is your view of the situation?
BK: "Nissan - Mississippi - we are outraged and we are committed to fight for the workers.
"All the foreign automakers are non-union except Mitsubishi because it is a joint venture with Chrysler.
j-a: Is that situation symptomatic of company/union relations in America in general?
BK: "It has been bad in the US for 20 years and workers have been systematically attacked for trying to organise. Companies almost always threaten to discipline workers.
"In many ways, for worker rights, this is one of the worst countries in the world, people are shocked, a woman from China said she could not believe it.
"We have got to do aggressive organising and build a broad coalition. I think the awareness of Americans and the impact of collective bargaining has grown. All over the US, working people have seen attacks on collective bargaining."
j-a: Despite that underlying tension, there are nonetheless some bright spots in relations with vehicle companies?
BK: "Relationships with suppliers and auto companies are better today than they have ever been. We do joint programmes on safety, on skilled trades. We want companies to succeed - we do 15 different programmes together."
j-a: To what extent does politics influence the labour landscape in the US and how did the recent tortuous debate on the so-called 'fiscal cliff' affect the domestic situation?
"BK: We learned a huge lesson in 2008 when we elected a Democrat majority and then we went to sleep - we did not organise to keep pressure on. It was devastating.
"The fiscal cliff raises a question. Are the Republicans looking to stand up to the right wing of the Republican Party? What is frightening is [some] in the Republican Party say they will shut down the country unless they get their ideological viewpoint.
"The question is for Republicans who voted for fiscal cliff compromise, are they going to stand up to it? I think Americans are fed up with the ideologues trying to hold our economy hostage."
j-a: There has been much talk in Europe of outsourcing to lower-cost economies - to what extent can the UAW repatriate work back to the US from similarly cheaper countries?
BK: "We bargained that vehicles being assembled in Mexico or engines and parts in Korea would come back to the US and they would be built here. Three or four General Motors vehicles out of Mexico and the Sonic previously built in Korea is being built right now in Auburn Hills.
"It is being brought back because with a combination of expertise and creativity, we can build competitively here. Overall labour costs are down because of changes we bargained in 2009 and 2011.
j-a: Your membership has undergone its own challenges in the last few years - are you more optimistic for the future?
BK: "Our membership has been falling [but] last year we had a minimal increase. I think we will see a resurgence of unions in the US. People who had lost sight of the labour movement realise how important it is.
"The UAW represents a little under 400,000 workers right now. Organising new members is tremendously important.
"I spend a tremendous amount of time in contact with overseas unions - we take responsibility [to] build global union networks. Each year we have had meetings with the global union network with Chrysler-Fiat - we work with [Sergio] Marchionne.
"Through bargaining and between the three [big US] companies, there were more than 20,000 jobs added. We negotiated a commitment for 20,000, but we have already surpassed it.
"It is a huge economic boon for the US that we keep the industry here.
j-a: How would you characterise the UAW's role in the US?
BK: "We are part of a broad coalition for more economic fairness - that really respects workers' rights to organise."
Nissan sent just-auto the following response to the union situation in Mississippi.
"The allegations being made by the UAW against Nissan are unfounded," said Nissan North America VP, corporate communications, Dave Reuter.
"Nissan employees in Canton enjoy jobs that are among the most secure in Mississippi and offer some of the highest manufacturing wages in the State, strong benefits, a working environment that exceeds industry standards and an open dialogue based on transparency and mutual respect.
"Nissan employees have voted overwhelmingly in the past to reject union representation."