"Mission of the UAW has never been more urgent" - Bob King

"Mission of the UAW has never been more urgent" - Bob King

In what seemed like a valedictory address last week, outgoing UAW president, Bob King, gave a tub-thumping speech at the Automotive News World Congress that set out loud and clear the tone of his beliefs.

The powerful UAW's Reuther Caucus will almost certainly elect current secretary-treasurer, Dennis Williams, as its next president in June, but King took the opportunity to restate his union's stance in no uncertain terms last week in Detroit.

"The mission of the UAW has never been more urgent - not only for working families but for the nation as a whole," said King to the World Congress delegates. "We find ourselves returning to a gilded age of class division, while the majority of Americans lose ground."

"The social compact has gone - we must restore it. Globalisation itself is not the enemy - technological change is not the enemy. But the promise and potential benefit of globalisation and technology has been corrupted by profit seeking and in the interests of the powerful and wealthy so that globalisation has benefited the few."

You could almost see parts of the the audience recoiling at such a barrage - the juxtaposition of King's powerful oratory and big business may have sat awkwardly with some but he didn't let up in his staunch defence of the American labour movement - a force he constantly connected to the middle class - while taking time to denounce the emergence of fewer unions.

"De-unionisation is toxic to our middle class democracy," he thundered. "The suppression of new organisation has resulted in the dramatic decline in unionisation in the US.

"The economic and wealth gap is greater than at any time in the last 100 years. Unions and collective bargaining are the most effective anti-poverty programme."

To those insistent the UAW is stuck in the past - and King's rhetoric certainly appears almost diametrically opposed to the management speak of today - the union chief maintained his labour body had "redefined our methods and tactics ...moving forward with a 21st century strategy."

King insists the UAW underwent "intense analysis" in 2008, just as the dark clouds of recession were gathering in their perfect storm and had recognised it had to adapt and change.

He stressed the collaborative nature of union/management industrial relations, an approach he believes contributed to the successful turnaround of the US auto industry that is seeing the rewards.

Whether the Detroit audience last week quite saw it that way is another matter.

The US taxpayers dug pretty deeply into their threadbare pockets to bail out General Motors for example and the emergence of so-called 'right to work' States across America could be taken as a sign unions will no longer enjoy the clout they once had.

But just in case the audience doubted King's philosophical approach to trade unions, the president hailed other countries as not competitors, but rather as "sisters and brothers" and cited the UAW's work in campaigning for the re-election of President Obama.

King's address was a mixture of stating exactly where he was from, but also contained several very American references to the middle class. From a European perspective, unions have traditionally appealed to the working class, it may just be the two sides of the Atlantic differ historically, or that America regards its middle class as a starting point.

The US is a relatively modern entity - citing the middle class constantly - in France or Italy for example - would probably not go down particularly well.

It might fare better in the 'Anglo-Saxon' countries of Germany and the UK, particularly the former where the prevalence of Works Councils on company boards is a direct attempt to engage labour at the highest echelons of business power.

I talked to King in Detroit last week and asked him if he would miss going into combat every day, fighting hard for what he so clearly believes in.

Whether you agree or disagree with him, the current UAW president has a huge wealth of experience and it would be the industry's loss I think, to imagine if the veteran campaigner would simply sail off into the sunset, so his comment to me: "I will be involved in the battles," although not exactly yet knowing the format, was reassuring.

As the US emerges more and more confidently back into something approaching its pre-recession economic landscape, it will be fascinating to know how unions will fit into the new environment.

King's appeal to a wider - and very American audience in general was telling: "The UAW and labour as a whole must rise to the challenge," he said. 

"We will never give up on the American dream."