Text of UAW President Ron Gettelfinger's 35th Constitutional Convention speech

 
Thank you very much Secretary Treasurer Elizabeth Bunn for the gracious introduction and thank all of you for the respect that you show for the office that I have been privileged to hold on your behalf for the past eight years.

Elizabeth is great! For 18 years we have had the pleasure of working together in various areas of responsibility. As Secretary Treasurer, Elizabeth has been steady in her resolve to be a good steward over the finances of our union and she has been willing to make the tough calls when it came to preserving resources. She has demonstrated her skills as a negotiator and her success in TOP organizing the past 12 years is unquestionable.
She is our friend and our sister. Thank you so much Elizabeth! We wish you well in your future endeavors.

Thank you also to our vice presidents; General Holiefield, Bob King, Cal Rapson, Jimmy Settles and our 11 regional directors for all of their support and for the great job they have done. This Board has worked hard to ensure that we have represented each and every member of our union to the very best of our ability regardless of the size of the unit or the sector of our union. And, it is through their leadership and determination, working with all of you, that made this a reality.

And, to retiring Vice President Cal Rapson, we appreciate your leadership over the GM, Delphi, Skilled Trades and Veterans Departments. You have done a tremendous job under some very trying circumstances. 
 
To our retiring regional directors; Region 1 - Joe Peters, Region 1C - Duane Zuckschwerdt, Region 1D - Don Oetman and Region 9A - Bob Madore: thank you for your outstanding service to our membership over your many years of involvement.

Tomorrow we will present all of our retired Board members for special recognition, but at this time I would like for a true statesman to stand; President Owen Bieber. Owen, we are very proud of you!
 
The Staff Council of International Representatives President Terry Bolte, OPEIU President Kris Bucci, Newspaper Guild/CWA Chair of the TOP Committee Sanda Davis, and the president of the Staff Lawyers Union Niraj Ganatra are here and we want to recognize them and the leadership of all of our internal unions.

Additionally, our staff have served our union exceptionally well.
Our Board wants to recognize all of them for everything that they have done to assist us through servicing our local unions, CAP Councils, standing committees, retiree chapters and organizing new members. We appreciate the retired staff who are in attendance and thank them for their past service. Thank you also to Elizabeth’s and my top assistants, Garry Mason and Phil Werking and all of our administrative staff.

Our clerical do an outstanding job for us as well and our Board wants to express our appreciation to all of them. Elizabeth’s assistant Michelle Lage has done a tremendous job and I want to especially recognize and thank my personal assistant Patty Brady for the terrific job she has done. We have worked together for 12 years and she is without question the best assistant that anyone could hope to have. She is dependable, professional and a great asset to our union. Thank you, Patty.

We would be remiss as a Board if we did not give special recognition to our local union leadership and membership. You are on the front lines and in the trenches, you handle day-to-day problems, you empower all of the standing committees, you’re involved in organizing drives, in our communities, politically and legislatively and you do an outstanding job at the various worksites. Thank you for all of your support, dedication and commitment and your tireless effort.

We welcome our special guests from the organized labor movement around the world. We have worked hard as a Board through our International Affairs and Organizing Departments to build upon and improve the working relationship that we have with our friends in the international community. We very much appreciate the solidarity that exists between our unions.
 
Serving as president of the International Metalworkers Federation World Auto Congress for the past eight years I have seen first hand just how complex the problems and challenges labor faces around the world remain. However, with the leadership of IMF General Secretary Jyrki Raina and President Berthold Huber we are confident that the course is chartered to make gigantic strides in social and economic justice for workers around the world. This is evidenced by the recently concluded strikes in China that impacted Honda and this is only the beginning.

Our Retired Workers Advisory Council, representing our 11 regions is also with us today. May God bless our retirees! The sacrifice that retirees have made gives us the courage, the will and the determination to continue to face the struggles of our day. UAW retirees are the best! You are engaged, in gear, and always ready to go. We count on you in organizing drives, in our community efforts, politically and legislatively and you have always been there for our union. You have stood with us and we have stood with you.

Our legal department did an outstanding job and successfully defended retiree health care with lawsuits at ArvinMeritor, Bosch, CNH/JI Case, Detroit Diesel, Volvo in Cleveland, and Volvo/NRV in Virginia. Our union also fought for retirees’ health care at Delphi, Dana and other companies.

Our retirees in the Big Three are now provided health care through a Voluntary Beneficiary Association. Partially because of this VEBA structure we made it through bankruptcy at Chrysler and GM with most of the benefits intact. This was unprecedented!

In your Convention kits is a handout titled “Why UAW?” where these and other victories are touched on. There is also the president’s report and the department reports. Our Board and the department directors under the presidents office, along with their staff, did a lot of work preparing these in-depths reports for you. We hope you will take them home for future reference.   
 
As you know, nearly seventy-five years ago a few blocks from here our union was formed at the Fort Shelby Hotel on August 26, 1935 when 200 auto and parts workers from seven states came together. Today, as we meet on the eve of this historic anniversary of our beloved UAW we recognize the accumulated sacrifices of millions of  women and men who have been part of forging our great union. Their steadfast resolve not only made it possible for future generations to fare better than their own, but essentially created the middle class in America. Our membership and leadership face the future together in solidarity because of those who built our union and those who followed them and built upon that foundation. 
 
As we celebrate “75 Years of Solidarity” we remember that our founders unselfishly sacrificed so that workers could have a voice in the workplace. Employers have always known that a union is the only instrument that gives working men and women any form of equity and justice in the workplace. Most employers have consistently and vigorously opposed unions with every means at their disposal. During and since the auto crisis they focused their smear tactics on the UAW like never before.

Their rhetoric has become a drumbeat of anti-union chatter. It has no merit but it continues to shape and form opinions against unions. These pro-employer, anti-worker, anti-union forces continually attack unions and workers who want to form a union. Those they represent belong to organizations that help them to gain clout in the employer community but they prefer to have the ability to trample on workers rights individual by individual. These anti-union forces are simply motivated by greed.
 We are driven by equity and justice in the workplace, and, brothers and sisters, in the end, we will prevail.

Organizing has never been easy. While our union, like most all unions, has suffered setbacks in organizing drives, our organizing departments have stayed the course and helped thousands of workers to form their union. The current leadership of Elizabeth Bunn and Christian Sweeney in TOP and National Organizing director Cindy Estrada and our entire Board have continued to build on our foundation and developed plans for success in the future. So, when workers in auto plants, parts, aerospace, agricultural implements, casinos, universities, hospitals, child care or any sector of the economy want representation our union is prepared to assist them.

It’s challenging but since Labor Law is so critical to organizing the fight for Labor Law reform must continue. We need to level the playing field for workers and, as AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka has stated, we will not back away from the Employee Free Choice Act. This is needed legislation and organized labor and our allies are going to continue to pursue this with determination.
 
We continue our fight because we are standing for a cause that is greater than any one of us. It’s not just about organized labor. Our success at the bargaining table, in organizing drives, on the political front, and in the legislative arena have benefited an untold number of workers who do not belong to a union. As then candidate for president Senator John Kennedy said when describing collective bargaining; “when the tide comes in all the boats in the harbor rise”. Certainly this quote is applicable to everything we do. 
 
We’ve had our share of disappointments and setbacks and we have also had major victories. Workers at Tenneco have been on strike for over five years and we have three additional strikes underway. We saw the impact of downsizing and the pain associated with the Peterbilt, NUMMI and other closings. But, we also saw UAW members at Daimler North America (Freightliner) in North Carolina launch and win a multi-faceted campaign when their work was shifted to Mexico. They contacted dealers and customers, reached out to public officials and pursued a grievance under their contract. The arbitrator ordered the work to be brought back and awarded back pay to more than 900 of our members. This initiative was instrumental in gaining job security for Freightliner workers in the most recently completed negotiations this year.

We were disappointed that we were forced on an 87 day strike in ‘08 at American Axle. And, within months of the settlement the company sourced work to Mexico. We saw a kernel of justice in arbitration, however, when Axle lost the decision and was required to award 125 workers full back pay and re-instate them.

We are aggressively continuing the fight for a first contract at casinos in Atlantic City and Evansville. On the other hand we are extremely proud that Region 9A and the TOP organizing department achieved a first contract for 2500 new members at Foxwoods. These members of Local 2121 in Connecticut are the first gaming workers to organize and bargain collectively under tribal law.

NTN Bower, Local 1900, following a year long strike which resulted in a new collective bargaining agreement in 2008, refused to return workers and committed other violations. Our union pursued unfair labor practices against the company and the Administrative Law Judge ruled that the company was required to return the strikers with full back pay. This will amount to a multi-million dollar settlement. 

This list goes on but the point is your union, our union, the UAW is completely engaged in representing our active and retired members.
 We have stayed true to our core values!
 
Four years ago, in our report to the 2006 Convention we wrote that the challenges we were facing in auto weren’t the kind that could just be ridden out. We described them as structural challenges requiring new and far-sighted solutions. Following what was hailed as transformational agreements in 2007 the difficulties we experienced were developments that were not on anyone’s radar screen. In just a few short months our country plunged into the worst economic downturn since the 1930’s.
 
As a result, we found ourselves in a fight for the very survival of our union and one of our country’s most important industries. Our members in auto and the auto parts sector faced some of the darkest hours since the formation days that our union has ever witnessed. As the storm clouds gathered the stress on our active and retired members and their families was beyond imagination.
 The uncertainty lingered as days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. In addition to the Chrysler and General Motors controlled bankruptcies we witnessed, according to the Original Equipment Suppliers Association, the bankruptcy of 55 union and non-union suppliers and the liquidation of 200 others, erasing thousands of jobs.

The economic downturn affected most every sector in our union, both public and private.  And, every sector of our union, other International Unions, and our coalition partners took an active part in the struggle in support of auto. You rallied, sent e-mails to Congress, wrote letters to the editors, made phone calls, attended teach-in’s, and you took the battle from main street into our communities including churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. Because of your strength; your commitment; your willingness to stand up; and your solidarity, we faced these challenges and chartered a course that led our great union down a path to survival.
 Leaner yes, but stronger, wiser, and more determined as well.

We must never forget that there were several Right Wing Conservatives in Washington who thought our industry should just fade away. They did not realize the strong resolve of the women and men of the UAW and that through our solidarity we had the energy, capacity and the vision to see things through. Most of these conservatives chose to represent the overseas foreign nameplate operations and turned their backs on America’s domestic auto industry and her workers. Let’s be clear. The contempt for the UAW was so deep that some of them were willing to let the industry collapse in the hopes they could destroy us.

Even the former President recognized the insanity of what they were attempting to do and granted bridge loans to Chrysler and GM insuring short term survival for the industry.

Without hesitation President Barack Obama addressed the auto crisis and he took the necessary actions to prevent the collapse of the industry. Just over a year later the domestic auto industry is profitable and is making in-roads in market share. Chrysler is expanding production, has hired workers for the first time in 10 years, and is investing in the United States. General Motors is coming on strong, adding shifts, re-calling workers, and, GM will be the first auto company in the world to assemble a B car platform in the United States. Ford continues to “hit on all cylinders” and they are setting the standard for the industry. We are witnessing the supply base starting to share in the turnaround. There is strong evidence that the worst is behind us and the industry is clearly rebounding.

The men and women of the UAW in auto, as in all sectors of our union, have relentlessly pursued safety, quality and productivity.
The safety issues faced by Toyota have many of their customers looking for alternatives and when they give UAW assembled vehicles a chance they are pleasantly surprised. The skilled, quality work of our members is finally being acknowledged. We are all pleased that a recent poll shows that Americans prefer domestics 38% to 33% over foreign brands.   
 
Sisters and Brothers, we owe a great deal to a young senator who on Labor Day 2008, as a presidential candidate, stood before the largest crowd in recent memory in the city of Detroit and said; “I don’t choke on the word union”.

President Barack Obama inherited eight years of failed policies that drove our nation in the red and our economy off a cliff. However, in addition to saving auto he has accomplished much more.

He enacted the $789 billion stimulus package that helped to stabilize the economy and created or saved 2-3 million jobs. He enacted sweeping health care reform and it was fitting that Walter Reuther’s nephew, Alan Reuther, was among the attendees when the legislation was signed.
The President also enacted major civil rights measures including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the hate crime prevention legislation. His nomination, and the Senate confirmation of, Sonia Sotomayor as the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court and Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor was extraordinary. He also made recess appointments of Craig Becker and Mark Pierce to fill needed position on the National Labor Relation Board. 

These few examples illustrate some of President Obama’s accomplishments and leadership abilities. And, yes there is a lot of work to be done in regards to job creation and the legislative agenda but our union can be proud of the role we played in helping him to win the presidency.

But, once again we will be called upon to work hard between now and November 2nd to insure that we stand with those who stood with us. It is important to our country that we deliver this fall to insure the President maintains a Congress to work with him to continue the progress he is making for our nation.

Because of the difficult challenges our nation and union have faced our membership has declined.
Consequently, a number of internal financial issues developed impacting both our local unions and the International Union. Just as our locals addressed these issues your International Executive Board took the necessary steps to shore up our union financially. Without reducing our ability to service our membership, organize, and be involved politically and legislatively, our Board cautiously considered every expenditure whether it involved the level of staffing, trips, or conferences. In eight years, even during the toughest economic times, we did not spend one penny of principle or interest out of the Emergency Operating Fund. Today it stands at over $102,000,000. That is leadership and our Secretary Treasurer, officers and regional directors are to be commended.

It is very important to give special recognition to our staff and clerical who as part of conserving resources went through a difficult and challenging mid-contract modifications process. No one wants to make contractual concessions but the staff and clerical employees of the International Union, like our membership, did what was in the best interest of our union and her membership. And, during these negotiations our staff and clerical put our members first.  They never allowed the internal discussions to interfere with their ability to serve our membership. On behalf of the Board I want to publicly thank them for taking this difficult and needed action.

The downturn in the economy also increased the need to assist those who are struggling in our society. Our Board wants to commend all of our members for remaining so generous. You have volunteered your time and financially supported most every major and local charitable cause that exists in our communities.

We also want to thank you and all of the women and men of the UAW who are so generous with your time. We have repeatedly called on you in our political and legislative fights, our organizing drives and our regional and national programs and never once have you done anything but answer the call with enthusiasm. It is because of you that we have had the strength to prevail in so many of our struggles.
 
As with any administration when the time comes to an end those of us who are leaving hope that we have built upon the foundation and steadied the organization so that the next administration will be off to a running start. We did hard assessments and analyses, abandoned what wasn’t working, and changed course when necessary.
 I readily accept the responsibility for any short comings during the last eight years. You can rest assured, however, that this sitting Board and the Board you elected in 2002 worked relentlessly toward building for the future as did every Board before us. 

Due East of this building on Jefferson Avenue, next to the sidewalk in Hart Plaza, stands the Michigan Labor Legacy Project which was donated to the city of Detroit by organized labor. The name is Transcending and the monument is not complete at the top. The gap illustrates that the work of organized labor is never done. It is appropriate and can also be used to illustrate that the work of our administration is not complete either. As we pass the torch of leadership we are confident that we have done everything in our power to ensure that the next administration does not have to look back for even a second.  We have the utmost confidence in their leadership and their ability to move our union forward. The task will now be in their hands but they will not face the challenges alone. They have every right to expect and it is incumbent on all of us to provide them all of the help and support that we possibly can.

We all know this sisters and brothers because we learned it in our home locals where our deep and abiding passion for the UAW is nurtured and grows. As an assembler and then chassis line repairman I have never forgotten the privilege of belonging to the UAW. It was at Local 862 that a journey began that took me from serving on a local union standing committee to International President of this great union. This journey was only possible, only possible, because of you, the membership and I am deeply grateful. 
 
It was you who made it possible for me to represent you publicly, at the bargaining table, and at the local, national and international level. Regardless of the setting, when the power of the UAW opened a door I was privileged to walk through it on your behalf. This was always a humbling experience and a great honor.

It is also important, however, to recognize the impact on our families that is encountered in order for any of us to serve our membership. Judy and I want to thank our children and their beautiful families for all of the love and support they have given us over the years. We are well aware of the numerous sacrifices that each of you have made. Thank you for your understanding and support. We love all of you.

In regards to Judy, she has been a wonderful first lady and a great role model for the UAW; always there, fully supportive and totally committed to the cause of social and economic justice for workers and giving back to others who are in need. It always makes me proud when our members and others comment on how much class she has and how well she represents the UAW. Judy is truly one of a kind. She has fulfilled her role beyond anyone’s expectations. Her love and support helped me more than she will ever know. Thank you, Judy. I love you!

Today, more than ever, we need to feel the passion of the labor movement. It’s wonderful to be union. To have a union card is the best insurance anyone who works for a living can have. And, to have union in your heart is essential.

It is a great feeling to say; these are our people and this is where we come from. This is our union family!
 Judy and I have made so many friends over the years and we value each and every one. Thank you for allowing us to be a part of your lives.

May God bless America, the UAW, our future leaders and all of you.

Solidarity, Solidarity, Solidarity Forever!