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A UAW for the 21st century

UAW President Bob King's speech to the Center for Automotive Research Conference

Delivered to Center for Automotive Research Conference, Aug. 2, 2010

It is an honor to address my colleagues in the auto industry for the first time as president of the UAW.

In the past year, we have emerged from the most dramatic and historic crisis that has ever faced the industry and our union. We are deeply grateful to the Obama administration and to the American people for saving the American auto industry. Enabling our companies to survive and turn around has saved hundreds of thousands of good jobs that would have been gone forever. Everyone made enormous sacrifices to emerge from this crisis.  UAW members took wage cuts of $7,000 to $30,000 a year. Benefits were also reduced significantly.  Restructuring resulted in the loss of nearly 200,000 jobs.

The crisis of 2008-2009 dramatized the necessity of fundamental change in the UAW. Although triggered by the financial meltdown, the crisis in the auto industry also had its roots in behaviors and cultures – both within the companies and within the union – that were outmoded and unsuited for the 21st century.  We had already begun to change and to revise our practices, but the crisis proved that we had not moved quickly or dramatically enough.

The UAW of the 21st century must be fundamentally and radically different from the UAW of the 20th century.

This is a new world, and we must reinvent our union with  bold new strategies.

Our union began 75 years ago as a movement for social justice for all working people. In the mid-20th century, the UAW played a critical role in building the middle class in this nation. It would be a betrayal of the bold and pioneering heritage of our union if we did not engage in bold and dramatic change to address the challenges of rebuilding a global middle class for the 21st century.

The 20th-century UAW grew in an era of national rather than global economics, where employers did not face the intense pressure of global competition.  The 21st-century UAW recognizes that flexibility, innovation, lean manufacturing and continuous cost improvement are paramount in the global marketplace.

The 20th-century UAW was dealing with a market dominated by the Big 3. The 21st-century UAW is dealing with at least the Big 7 and probably more.

The 20th-century UAW joined with the companies in a mindset that it was the company’s job to worry about profits, and the union’s job to worry about getting the workers their fair share. The 21st-century UAW embraces as our own the mission of producing the highest quality, best value products for our customers.

The 20th-century UAW was not primarily focused on the needs of the consumers, and we failed to champion forcefully or effectively enough the goals of preserving our environment for future generations through green manufacturing. The 21st-century UAW makes as a priority the interests of consumer safety, energy efficiency, and environmental protection.

The 20th-century UAW fell into a pattern with our employers where we saw each other as adversaries rather than partners. Mistrust became embedded in our relations, and as a result we signed onto ever more lengthy and complicated contracts with work rules and narrow job classifications that hindered flexibility, hindered the full use of the talents of our members and promoted a litigious and time-consuming grievance culture. The 21st-century UAW has welcomed the openness, collaboration, and creative problem solving partnerships that we have forged with Chrysler, GM, and Ford. Out of the ashes of the cataclysm of 2008 and 2009, a new, more visionary and stronger 21st-century UAW is being born. The 21st-century UAW no longer views these managements as our adversaries or enemies, but as partners in innovation and quality. Our new relationships with these employers are built upon a foundation of respect, shared goals, and a common mission.

The 20th-century UAW tried to find ways to achieve job security, such as job banks, that in the end did not achieve the result we were seeking. The 21st-century UAW knows that the only true path to job security is by producing the best quality product, the safest product and the longest lasting product, at the best price.

The 20th-century UAW reacted with hostility and resistance to the historic changes brought about by the globalization of the economy. The 21st-century UAW is adopting a constructive and positive approach to global trade and global development, and we are committed to being citizens of the world and achieving trade that spreads prosperity and lessens poverty.

At Ford, GM, and Chrysler, we have already demonstrated this new vision and achieved important, dramatic improvements in quality.  We now produce the highest quality vehicles in the world. In productivity we have made just as important and dramatic improvements achieving billions of dollars of annual cost savings and global competitiveness.  We achieved global best in quality and productivity by working in creative partnership with management using innovative problem solving discipline.

When it became necessary for the companies to consolidate, we took a strong proactive role in making sure that quality did not suffer from the workforce reductions and churning. At Ford, for example, the UAW raised strong concerns about quality and persuaded management to work together aggressively on quality training and discipline to process and as a result quality not only did not suffer, it actually improved even when 30,000 members left Ford and 30,000 members had to learn new jobs!  We also launched a joint UAW Ford Lean Suppler Optimization Team, through which we were able to find millions of dollars of annual savings in numerous supplier facilities. We also began to work as a team on long-term product development, contributing to finding ways to keep costs down and find workforce solutions to efficiently produce innovative products. As the auto industry moves towards green technology and electrification, we are committed to contributing our creativity, our initiative and our dedication to the new world of cars of the future.

And we are not just global leaders in quality and productivity; we are working together and setting new standards in attendance and knowledge driven workforces.  Highly trained certified black belts and Quality Operating System Operators — hourly UAW members — drive quality in our products.

I truly believe that employers would be wise to re-examine their instinctive resistance to the notion of unionization, and consider some of the advantages of a positive, productive relationship with a union. Unions can and should play a positive role — and the results show the UAW is doing exactly that! Union workers feel secure enough to speak up when they have an idea of how to improve a process.  Unions improve morale and reduce absenteeism. They support, rather than obstruct, accountability from both management and the workforce. The UAW of the 21st century is a force for innovation; we are committed to the success of the employers who are our partners. Making the best product or providing the best service at the best price is a primary mission of the union in the interests of our members.

The UAW and our members have a moral obligation to our customers to build the best vehicles at the best price.  Our first loyalty is ultimately to our customers.  If we have to we will fight for the highest quality and highest customer safety for the customer as strongly as we fight for our own safety and well being!

This commitment to fundamental change is not just a tenet of the new administration, but is permeating the entire culture of the union. I can tell you that there is no group of people more committed to the success of the auto industry than the union and our members. Our members know that the success of their employers is in their own essential long-term interest. They won’t be jumping ship to grab onto a golden parachute. They are in this for the long haul. They are ready, willing and able to do what it takes to make their companies successful.

So the keywords of the 21st-century UAW are flexibility, innovation, quality, teamwork, productivity, continuous cost-savings, and respect. The rigid demarcation between management and labor that was so entrenched in the old model is discarded. Layers of management can be eliminated because the workers are dedicated to managing their own processes.

The UAW’s attitude towards business is one of respect for the challenges they face.  We respect not only the employers with whom we have relationships, but we also have enormous respect for the transnational companies who have built factories in the United States. We welcome you as partners and colleagues in the industry. We appreciate the fact that you are providing good jobs here. We admire many of your good policies and practices, including the focus on continuous improvement, quality and productivity. The transplants are an important and essential part of preserving, maintaining and growing our manufacturing base in this country.

The 21st-century UAW also has adopted a more constructive and positive approach to the issue of global trade. Many people forget that Walter Reuther was an internationalist who favored trade, but who also stressed the need for trade to take place on an equitable basis, so that corporations could not use low wages, poor working conditions and repression of unions to their competitive advantage.

Our once-vibrant cities have felt the pain and dislocation of globalization, and the needs of our communities are legitimate and must be addressed. We can only address these needs effectively if we have strategies that fit the new global world we live in.  Looking back and wishing for days gone by is a road to nowhere. We must engage constructively and creatively with the realities of globalization.

Our commitment to our core values has not changed.  Our strategies to achieve these core values must change to be effective in the new world we live in.

Globalization has improved the living standards of hundreds of millions of people in developing countries. As evidenced by the recent labor actions in China, Mexico, and Bangladesh, workers around the world want the same thing — a decent wage, good working conditions, and the right to organize free unions. The interests of American workers are intricately interwoven with the aspirations of the world’s poor. Just as the 20th-century UAW helped build the American middle class, the 21st-century UAW must contribute to the goal of creating a global middle class. This is the essence of our heritage of fighting for social justice.

It is also our core belief that unions are an essential feature of every democratic society. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently delivered an important policy address on the subject of civil society. She pointed out that democracy is a three-legged stool, the three legs of which are elections, free markets, and civil society. Civil society includes such institutions as the free press and free labor unions.  Elections alone, and capitalism alone, do not ensure democracy, for corporate actions left unchecked by a free press or by free unions can result in corporate domination of the political process and massive, destabilizing divisions between rich and poor.

No democracy on Earth can thrive and prosper without democratic unions. The notion of huge multinational corporations with carte blanche — no union to hold them accountable, no union to enforce safety and environmental standards, no union to speak for workers on the job or in the public arena — raises the specter of an Earth laid waste for the benefit and profit of a privileged few who can dominate not only the marketplace but also the political process.

Both the free press and free unions depend upon the right of free speech and freedom of association, which in this country are enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The right to organize unions is the First Amendment for workers.

In the United States, this right does not exist for private sector workers. Many corporations in this country beginning in the 1970s adopted a scorched earth policy to destroy unions. Their clearly stated aim was to operate “union-free,” to rid this nation of this critical leg of democracy.

They began hiring anti-union consultants who with very little effort found ways to render the National Labor Relations Board election process a complete farce and sham.  Labor Board elections bear no resemblance to real democratic elections. Management fires or threatens to fire workers who get involved in union organizing campaigns. Workers are required to attend mandatory meetings where they are told that their company is likely to close if they choose to unionize. Supervisors apply pressure to individuals, making sure that people know their jobs and futures are at stake. Derogatory, divisive and inflammatory comments about unions are constant. It doesn’t matter whether these threats are legal or not, since there are no meaningful penalties in the law. The entire goal is to create insecurity and a climate of fear.

Democracy cannot coexist with fear.

While the UAW strongly supports the Employee Free Choice Act, we will not passively sit and wait for its passage.  In our strongest historical traditions we will take direct action now in every way we can to protect all workers in exercising their First Amendment rights.

The UAW does believe in the principle of a fair secret-ballot election in which workers can decide freely whether or not to join the union.

Therefore, we are crafting a set of guidelines called the UAW Principles for Fair Union Elections. These principles are being adapted from guidelines developed by the labor/management Institute for Employee Choice. They include requirements such as equal access to the employees for both union and management and prohibition of making derogatory, insulting or untruthful statements about the other party. The UAW principles ban any threats or pressure by either the union or management.

We will soon be unveiling these principles, and we will present them to the executives within the industry who are not currently unionized.  We will ask them to sign on to these principles. If a company agrees to adopt the UAW Principles, and then abides by these principles, we will respect the decision of their workers whether they vote to join the union or not.

However, if companies do not agree to these principles, and instead engage in threatening behavior towards workers who want to organize a union, or fire workers who try to organize, or close down facilities to thwart union activity, then the UAW will not tolerate the violation of workers’ First Amendment rights.

I want to clarify this point. There has been some misunderstanding that the UAW will “pound” on companies that do not recognize the UAW. This is not correct. Our position is that we will demand that companies respect the rights of their workers to decide freely whether or not to join the UAW.  If companies violate workers' rights, if companies take vicious anti-union actions, we will expose those companies in any and every way we can until they agree to respect workers' rights and to rectify their anti-union actions.

Let me be clear, our goal is not to force auto companies to unionize. This is not about our institutional self-interest; it is not about getting dues money. It is about democracy, and goes to our fundamental mission and the reason for our existence: to protect the right of workers to organize unions and collectively bargain for fairness, dignity, and a democratic voice.

If companies choose not to respect the rights of American workers – whether those companies are American or foreign-owned – then the UAW will use every resource at our disposal to convince those companies to abide by our democracy. It is particularly disturbing and unacceptable for a corporation to allow unionization in other countries, but treat American workers as second-class citizens who are not entitled to unionize. 

We are advocating for a high road of common interests, shared strategies and shared success, but if we must fight, then we will fight with all our strength. In the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, our goal is NOT revenge or retaliation.  Our goal is to achieve democratic values and principles.

So, any company that does not agree to the UAW Principles is essentially declaring war on freedom of speech and assembly, and it is our duty and mission to enforce that right.

Let me be clear, the UAW does not want to go to war with any company — we are advocating for the opposite.  Conflict and prolonged fights are not good for the UAW and will not be good for the company. It is not a good business model for any company to be in a battle with the UAW. We want to be responsible partners who add value and who help companies succeed and grow. We offer respect, and we expect respect in return.

The choice will be up to the non-union companies, and I suggest that the best business practice, the best way to deliver shareholder value, is to partner with the UAW on quality, productivity, attendance, employee morale, and the overall goal of providing the best product at the best price to the customer. In today's extremely intense competitive global marketplace, I guarantee that employers with UAW partnerships are going to outperform non-union employers in every key measurable!

The UAW has embraced fundamental, radical change. We call upon the business community to also embrace change. We challenge you to respect the right of workers to organize unions globally. We challenge you to help build a better world. We challenge you to adopt a global trade agenda that does not exploit workers but rather lifts them out of poverty. We challenge you to join us in a global vision of a common humanity with an end to hunger, disease, and strife, that finds new, green sources of energy to meet the transportation needs of future generations, that reduces the intolerable cruelty of poverty.

When Cesar Chavez was organizing farmworkers in the 1960s, Walter Reuther marched by his side. I conclude with words of Cesar Chavez that embody the values of the UAW of the 21st century: 

"We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. ... Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own. "

I look forward to working with all of you to achieve progress and prosperity for all.