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Delegates at the 2014 UAW National Community Action Program Conference in Washington await President Bob King's address. Photo by Jenny Sarabia.
By Vince Piscopo and Joan Silvi
WASHINGTON -- It used to be that when workers wanted to organize their workplace, the opposition came from management inside the plant and company headquarters.
But, as UAW President Bob King told delegates on the second day of the 2014 UAW National Community Action Program (CAP) Conference, workers now have to fight the deep pockets of far-right extremists such as the Koch Brothers, Grover Norquist, and the politicians they fund, such as Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam in Tennessee.
“The forces against us are more aggressive than ever in history,” King said. “They have millions of dollars they are investing against us.”
Far-right backed groups are on the ground in Chattanooga, Tenn., trying to disrupt Volkswagen workers from winning union representation, even though a strong majority has already signed cards indicating their desire to become UAW members. They are directly injecting themselves into the campaign, even though Volkswagen has exercised excellent corporate responsibility by allowing its workers to have a free and fair choice on representation without the fear and intimidation that has become the hallmark of so many organizing campaigns in the United States.
These well-funded groups haven’t stopped at blocking organizing drives, either. Right-to-work legislation was a carefully planned campaign at the state level to strip workers of their ability to win economic gains through collective bargaining. The question, King said, is what will UAW members do to protect the gains we have from being further eroded?
“We can shrivel up and let right-wing forces carry on or we can say we’re going to fight,” King told the 1,500 CAP delegates in attendance. They responded with a boisterous standing ovation indicating their desire to take the fight head on.
To win in 2014 and beyond, it will take resources, but it also takes participation, said King. The re-election of President Obama in 2012 is an example of the level of participation needed in this year’s mid-term elections. Our participation, especially the one-on-one conversations our activists had with members, carried the day for the Obama campaign. President King said he was told by two top Obama advisers on two separate occasions that “without the UAW we would not have won this election.”
Participation cuts both ways, though. The 2010 midterm elections were disastrous. Tea Party Republicans helped take over the House, and blocked just about everything the president proposed to get the country moving forward. It led to the election of right-wing governors such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Snyder in Michigan and John Kasich in Ohio. All three carried water for extreme right-wing groups bent on destroying collective bargaining and harming working families in their states.
“We’ve seen the downside of elections having consequences,” he said.
There’s an opportunity to retain the Democrat-controlled Senate and win back the GOP-controlled House. Doing so will allow the president to carry out his agenda to raise the minimum wage, provide for the unemployed and appoint more officials such as Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who cares about the poor and the middle class.
“I think history demonstrates you can’t have a strong democracy without a strong middle class,” King said.
“Last night you heard Thomas Perez say, ‘You can’t have a strong middle class without strong unions.’”
King looked back on the last few years and noted that our members have had some significant success in bargaining and organizing. The 2011 auto negotiations have led to more than $20 billion of investment and more than 20,000 new direct jobs. For every one of those jobs created by our bargaining, there are nine more jobs in auto suppliers and other sectors.
“The largest creator of middle-class, decent-paying, jobs has been the auto industry and that is because of collective bargaining,” he told delegates. “We’re the No. 1 creator of manufacturing jobs in America.”
In the heavy truck industry, thousands of jobs have been brought back from Mexico to North Carolina and South Carolina. King said the UAW convinced Navistar to re-source work back to UAW plants, and noted when Navistar had to close plants, it closed non-represented facilities.
There are now 11,000 dues-paying members in the gaming sector, and key organizing victories in Ohio and Las Vegas in the last two years. The Las Vegas victory opens the door to adding tens of thousands more members to our ranks.
“This is an area with tremendous growth potential,” King said. “We’re very excited.”
Those wins would not be possible without building coalitions with other unions. And at Nissan, building coalitions with groups inside and outside of labor has strengthened Nissan workers’ fight for a free and fair vote on union representation. King said the president of Nissan’s union in Japan has pledged support, as have unions in South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, the Blue-Green Alliance, and The Union of Concerned Scientists have written to Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, expressing their displeasure with the corporation’s virulent anti-union stance in the United States, while accepting unionization in just about every other nation in which it does business.
These coalitions bear fruit, as evidenced by the Volkswagen organizing. Clearly the courageous leadership by Volkswagen workers on the plant floor and the support of VW Works Council and IG Metall,have built majority support and the opportunity for VW Chattanooga workers to choose UAW representation. VW, so used to successfully working with unions in other countries, understands that the works council system of worker representation benefits everyone, King said.
‘We’re really in a position to get an historic victory down there,” he added.
An example of neutrality working is at New York University, where academic workers won back their union in 2013. They had a union and a contract until the Bush administration-led National Labor Relations Board decided those workers were “students” and stripped it away. The UAW fought that decision and, after an eight-year battle, won back their representation in December.
“I don’t care whether you are in the south, west, east or north. If workers have a free and open opportunity to join a union, the will join a union,” King said. “NYU is a great example of that because when NYU had neutrality the vote was 644 for and 10 against.”
The organizing wins over the last few years help build our union’s density and help our ability to win better contracts. Two-tier wages were not something the UAW wanted, but were necessary because of the financial health of the automakers, King said. In some bargaining, the union has been able to eliminate two-tier systems or drastically reduce the difference in wages between tiers, King said. In other cases, it won’t happen overnight. Building union strength through organizing and applying the resources necessary in bargaining will help bridge that difference, especially in the upcoming 2015 auto negotiations. But member participation in the union’s efforts is the most critical component, King said.
“You are the key activists. We need you to do even more,” King told CAP delegates. “You know and I know that there are many of our members who are inactive.
“They’ve got to be involved in the process. You can’t complain about the result if you are not involved in the process.”
Nissan worker Dionne Monroe says the company subjects its workers to rountable meets with managment to disparage unions. Photo by Jenny Sarabia.
Another highlight of today’s CAP conference activities was remarks to delegates from a worker from the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss. Workers there are campaigning for a free and fair election and have generated support from students, civil and labor rights leaders, and unions from around the world. Canton Nissan worker Dionne Monroe says she and her co-workers are routinely subjected to intimidation and threats from Nissan management simply for supporting a union.
“They subject us to roundtable meetings with management where they talk negatively about the union and hold one-on-one meetings with workers where they also talk about how unions are not needed,” said Monroe, while workers are not allowed to hear positive messages about how the union can benefit them and the company.
She told the story of Canton Nissan worker Chip Wells who faced numerous disciplinary actions from management after he was publicly interviewed about his pro-union views. He was later reinstated by Nissan after union members in Brazil demonstrated about the unfair treatment of Wells.
Monroe also described the unfairness of Nissan’s heavy reliance on temporary workers, many who do the same work as direct hires but make far less in wages and benefits and often stay in precarious temp status for years. “Nissan temps deserve the same pay as direct hires,” said Monroe. “We want a voice. We need a union.”
Local 2368's Luisa Rivera Sanchez: A strong union would stop Nissan's intimidation tactics. Photo by Joan Silvi.
Monroe also told delegates about an upcoming public event in support of her and her co-workers that’s happening next month. “On March 21, the singer Common will perform to kick off Freedom Spring in conjunction with Freedom Summer in Jackson, Miss., the commemorate 50 years of civil rights history in Miss.,” announced Monroe. That event is all part of the growing show of support for the right to organize that Nissan workers are campaigning for in Miss. Workers in Canton say Nissan works with unions at its other plants around the world and shouldn’t treat Miss. workers as second-class citizens by denying them that same international labor right. As Monroe’s shirt stated, “Labor rights are civil rights.” They certainly are.
CAP delegate Luisa Rivera Sanchez is president of Local 2368 which represents state agriculture department workers in Puerto Rico. She said Monroe’s comments were moving. “Dionne’s remarks remind me of the importance of job security you get with a union, especially when I hear her describe the intimidation meetings and threats made to Nissan workers in Mississippi, and how the company tries to scare workers out of wanting a union. Once you have a strong union those things don’t happen,” said Sanchez.
Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, told delegates that she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, brought an inspiring message to delegates, saying its unions that keep America’s middle class strong.
“I work with people who don’t believe in opportunity,” said Fudge. “When labor is strong people do well.” Fudge also touched on the country’s growing wealth gap and how it’s happening at the expense of workers, thanks to the wealthy who aren’t paying the taxes they should be. “I don’t understand that people would use you to elevate their wages based on your hard work but not want to pay their fair share. Something is wrong with that!” she told an applauding audience.
The congresswoman also referenced trade legislation known as Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the UAW is opposed to without significant changes to protect the domestic U.S. auto market and workers’ right to organize.
“I’m not supporting or voting for TPP. … I no longer support the fact that people work 40 hours a week and are still in poverty,” said Fudge, comments which brought delegates to their feet in a standing ovation. “Tell Congress (when you make your Capitol Hill visits to lobby your representatives this week) that the only reason there’s a middle class is because of you!” said Fudge. That’s definitely a message CAP delegates are ready to share.
Local 6000's Bob Sisler: Fix income inequality. Photo by Joan Silvi.
Bob Sisler is a delegate from Local 6000 which represents 22,000 workers in state government in Michigan. “She was concerned about people’s needs,” said Sisler after Fudge’s address. “There’s income inequality and that’s wrong. Too many people can’t live decently even though they are working,” said Sisler.
Local 2322's Jocelyn Silverlight: Congresswoman Fudge an inspiring leader. Photo by Joan Silvi.
Delegate Jocelyn Silverlight is president of 3,000-member Local 2322 in west Massachusetts, which represents post doctorate researchers, resident assistants and other academic workers at University of Massachusetts-Amherst as well as workers at 15 health and human service organizations. She said it was encouraging seeing a woman in such a powerful position of leadership in Congress. “To have such a powerful woman of color leading us is inspiring. She is breaking the mold,” said Silverlight.
Local 1796's Melvin Walker: His union job keeps him in the middle class. Photo by Joan Silvi.
Delegate Melvin Walker is a licensed boiler operator at Wayne County Community College in Detroit. The Local 1796 member says Congresswoman Marcia Fudge’s comments about the middle class being created by unions really hit home with him. “I am part of that middle class thanks to my union job. Now, I can provide for my family and my children. I can keep them in the middle class.”
Mississippi autoworkers will tell about their fight for dignity and respect on the job by unionizing against “right-to-work laws" in the South today on radio station WWRL 1600 in New York at 11 a.m.
Nissan workers will tell their story. UAW President Bob King discusses their campaign and describes the resistance they face from Nissan. Brian Schneck, president of UAW Local 259, describes how the UAW has successfully organized repair shops at auto dealerships to make sure N.Y. metro area workers receive decent wages and good working conditions.
Listen today at 11 a.m. on 1600AM or online at WWW.WWRL1600.com and follow the conversation on Twitter @LaborLines
By Bob King
Many a jaw dropped at the UAW’s support for the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. The UAW seeks fair trade and a more equitable global economy that raises the standard of living for workers who have created enormous wealth around the world. The union has a proud history of advocating for fair trade and believes that worker and consumer protections must come first.
The Obama administration is negotiating with Japan and 10 other nations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. Japan’s inclusion could weaken U.S. labor rights, and harm domestic manufacturing and the American middle class. We must raise our voices now for a trade deal that is fair to American workers, manufacturers and consumers.
Japanese auto companies here routinely deny workers the right to freely choose union representation. These threats start with indoctrination at the time of hire, including implying that the plant will close, will not get new products or new investments if workers chose a union.
Pro-union workers are threatened and harassed. A recent report by Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson and professor Lance Compa, an international labor law scholar, demonstrates that in Canton, Miss., Nissan is not living up to international labor standards. Compa concludes that “Nissan is systematically interfering with the internationally recognized right to form a union.”
The International Labor Organization prohibits companies from imposing pressure, instilling fear and making threats that undermine workers’ right to freedom of association.
Jeff Moore, a Nissan body shop quality technician hired in 2001, said the anti-union intimidation began early. “In the first meetings, managers told us that Nissan is totally nonunion and didn’t want any part of unions, that unions make plants close,” said Moore. “Everything they said about unions was negative, nothing positive. It’s like they were drilling it into our heads, stay away from the union.”
Workers are forced to watch films, hear speeches and attend orchestrated one-on-one meetings with supervisors, all warning of dire consequences that come with union representation.
This must stop.
Nissan and other Japanese automakers must abide by international treaties and must respect workers rights to organize. If these companies do not change their practices now, what incentive will they have after their position is enhanced by the TPP?
Japan must also become a fair trading partner. While Japan doesn’t impose tariffs on U.S. cars, it uses an array of underhanded practices including currency manipulation, regulatory schemes and anti-consumer policies to guarantee that Japan’s auto companies have an absolute monopoly on local markets. Japan’s auto market is the most insular in the developed world. Hyundai-Kia — which is gaining small vehicle market share around the world — spent nearly a decade trying to sell cars in Japan and eventually gave up in frustration.
With more than half the cars sold in the U.S. produced by foreign automakers, our market is open, encouraging competition. But Japan does not play by the same rules.
Japan exports 130 vehicles to the U.S. for every one American vehicle exported there.
The TPP could worsen this problem, potentially phasing out tariffs on Japanese automobiles, parts and light trucks. Removing tariffs would be equivalent to a $1 billion tax break for Japanese automakers, costing at least 100,000 American jobs.
If Japan does not meet these goals, trade with Japan will indeed be free, but it won’t be fair.
Actor/social activist Danny Glover says the UAW was there when South Africans needed help to dismantle apartheid. Now South Africans are there for Nissan workers who want to join a union but cannot because the automakers allows unions everywhere except the United States.
Glover, in a Huffington Post article, says Americans are asking for help from the South African auto union that represents Nissan's production facilities and dealerships. Nissan is happy to cooperate with unions elsewhere -- as well as in its home country of Japan -- but employs a fierce campaign of threats and intimidation in Canton, Miss.
Actor/social activist Danny Glover, speaking outside the Japanese Embassy in South Africa, says workers in Mississippi have fewer rights than their counterparts in South Africa. Photo by Michele Martin.
As an actor/social activist, I never thought I’d see the day when the workers of South Africa have more freedom to join unions than the workers of Mississippi.
Last week, I visited South Africa with a delegation of Mississippi workers, clergy, students and UAW leaders to request support from their auto union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. There’s a special bond between the unions. In the 1980s, the UAW fought against apartheid in South Africa and for workers’ rights. When political prisoner and South African leader Nelson Mandela was freed in 1990, he traveled to Detroit to thank the UAW.
This time, we asked South Africans to help mobilize in support of the right of Americans to organize unions.
In South Africa – as in Japan and most other countries – Nissan workers have collective bargaining rights, and the company and unions work together.
But Nissan has decided it won’t permit American workers to have that same respect. Nissan is treating its American workforce as second-class citizens.
When Nissan workers in Canton, Miss., began to organize, the company reacted with intimidation tactics and implied threats to close the facility. “If you are pro-union, you are anti-Nissan,” they said. The company subjected workers to one-on-one and group anti-union meetings, and has refused to agree to a fair election.
Located near the center of the civil rights movement, Canton is the site of the murders of Medgar Evars, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. In Canton, civil rights and freedom struggles fill the air and dreams of every man, woman and child. Fifty years later, Canton is at the heart of this struggle for economic justice and the American dream.
Just over a decade ago, taxpayers offered Nissan hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives to locate in Mississippi. Instead of delivering on expectations of full-time jobs, Nissan relies on a large pool of temporary labor for production. These workers earn just over minimum wage, have few benefits and no job security. Nissan claims to never have layoffs, but it lets go of temporary workers at will.
Canton’s Nissan workers support their company and its products, but they have health and safety concerns. They also question why pay and benefits are less in Mississippi than at Nissan’s Tennessee plant. Canton Nissan workers reached out to the UAW because they want to have a voice and a seat at the table to discuss these issues.
When the company moved to suppress this union effort, community leaders rose up. The Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan is led by the president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention and includes the state NAACP president and other civil rights and church leaders. Student activists from historically black colleges mobilized as the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance.
As someone committed to human dignity and civil rights, I believe their struggle for the right to freely form a union is one of the most important issues of our time. I’m committed for as long as it takes.
As long as powerful corporations such as Nissan use fear and threats to keep workers weak and without a voice, America won’t be a land of opportunity for all. With the help of our brothers and sisters in South Africa, we won’t let that happen.
This opinion piece originally appeared in the June 5, 2013, edition of the Detroit News.
By Bob King
Driving north from Jackson, Miss., on Interstate 55, there's a massive Nissan automotive plant parallel to the highway. It stretches for miles, with nearly 5,000 workers assembling vehicles inside. While the plant is impressive, a growing coalition of Mississippi religious and civic leaders and students are spreading the word across the nation and globally about Nissan's actions behind those walls that aren't so impressive: Intimidating workers and denying them their fundamental right to a fair union election.
Congressman Bennie Thompson called on Mississippi leaders to stand up for Nissan workers who are seeking to organize a union, and last summer, the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN) was formed.
MAFFAN members are very clear in their purpose. They're happy Nissan provides jobs for their community, but they refuse to accept the intimidation campaign Nissan is waging against workers. Nissan has even implied plant closure if workers exercise their right to form a union. But how can this be true when Nissan recognizes unions all over the world — including its home country, Japan?
Dr. Isiac Jackson Jr., who is MAFFAN chair and president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi, said it best: "We will not tolerate Nissan treating Mississippians as second-class citizens. We will carry the message in Mississippi and to the world insisting that Nissan allow a fair process that allows workers to freely decide on unionization."
Today, Nissan workers and MAFFAN members are at the United Nations in Geneva, taking that message to the world and to consumers at the International Motor Show.
The fair process Jackson wants is more than a good idea, it's a right. The UN's Global Compact states forming a union is a universal human right. MAFFAN leaders are asking Nissan to allow workers a fair union election, where workers are able to hear both sides, free from intimidation and threats. In a fair, democratic election, union supporters will be allowed equal access and time with workers.
Under these common sense principles (which the UAW calls the Principles for Fair Union Elections), workers can truly make an informed decision about unionization.
Workers want a voice in the workplace to end unfair practices, such as Nissan's business practice of employing a significant percentage of temporary workers, called "Nissan Associates." Temporary workers do exactly the same work as regular employees, but for less pay, less job security and limited benefits. They often put their life plans on hold, hoping to become permanent Nissan employees, but it's unlikely they will ever be hired permanently.
Mississippi workers want to form a collaborative relationship with Nissan built on mutual respect, cooperation and trust. They want to be partners in creating quality products at the best value, so both Nissan and workers can prosper. Nissan should welcome that proposition.
I agree with Mississippi leaders: We cannot stand by and allow this foreign company to treat American workers like second-class global citizens. As president of the UAW, I'm encouraged to see local community leaders standing up for workers.
Until they can freely decide whether to have a union, Mississippi workers need support - from MAFFAN, the UAW and the global community.
Bob King is president of the UAW. Thiis opinion piece originally appeared in the March 6, 2013 edition of the Detroit News.
By Roger Bybee
In These Times
(reprinted with permission)
Seizing advantage of a widespread complacency about the suppression of labor rights in the United States, employers have conducted a scorched-earth war against American labor since the 1950s, driving down private-sector unionization to a mere one-fifth of its peak level of 35%. This war essentially spread from its base in the former slave states of the South, where elites maintained tight control over workers through anti-labor "right-to-work" laws that helped to foster a national race to the bottom on wages and to suppress unionization.
But in an innovative appeal, the UAW is boldly asserting that union rights are crucial human rights, driving home this point in a battle to organize as many as 4,500 workers at Nissan’s expanding auto plant in Canton, Miss.
The battle is taking place is in one of the most fervent bastions of anti-unionism. Mississippi has enshrined the anti-labor "right to work" concept with a provision in its constitution, a step led by arch-segregationist Governor Ross Barnett in 1960. With "right-to-work" laws enabling individual employees to forgo paying union dues—even though he or she benefits from the costs of representation and fights for improved wages, benefits and conditions—only 4.3 percent of Mississippi workers belonged to unions in 2012 (with the total protected by union contracts a bit higher, at 5.7 percent).
For its part, Nissan is running the standard high-pressure management campaigns that are unique to the United States among advanced democracies. The tactics include subjecting workers to interrogations about their sympathies, forcing them to attend one-on-one meeting with their supervisors where immense pressure can be applied, and hinting that a pro-union vote could lead to the plant closing.
Meanwhile, workers are chafing over stagnating wages, the emergence of a large, low-paid segment of contract workers, assembly-line "speedups," sharply rising healthcare costs, and the absence of any worker voice in decisions at the Canton plant.
The plant, which is expanding from 3,300 to 4,500 workers, was built with $373.8 million in taxpayer funding from the country's poorest citizens—Mississippi ranks dead last in per-capita income—and a 30-year exemption from local taxes in Canton.
The South is supposedly rocky soil in which to plant the seed of unionism and social justice, especially when the pay is relatively high, topping off at $24 an hour at Nissan. But by emphasizing that union rights are human rights, the UAW has established strong roots among the workforce at Canton, about 80 percent of who are African-American. The union, realizing it must organize surrounding communities as well as the workplace, has built support among community leaders and church leaders around the state.
The struggle for union recognition has become fused with the fight for recognition of workers as full human beings at the Canton plant. Nissan’s efforts to scare workers away from unionization have been all-too reminiscent of the era when African-Americans were controlled through fear and deemed unworthy of the rights afforded to others. The Canton plant is only 26 miles from Jackson, Miss., where state NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1964. Nearby Philadelphia, Miss., is where the bodies of three young civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner—were discovered in the summer of 1964, after they had been captured, tortured, and killed by the Ku Klux Klan with the collaboration of local law enforcement.
Union supporters find it degrading that Nissan has been unwilling to accept a union in Mississippi when it has worked with unions across the world, from its home in Japan to a union representing primarily black workers in South Africa. Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson, in an interview on MSNBC's "The Ed Show," asked:
"If workers in Brazil can organize, who work for Nissan, if workers in Japan who are Nissan workers -- if workers in South Africa at their Nissan plant are organized and able to collectively bargain, why shouldn't Mississippi workers be able to organize?
"I think it's unfair and unfathomable that a company from outside of the United States come to Mississippi and treat workers as un-American. It is unfortunate that we can sit here today in the state that has a long history of exploiting workers for cheap labor to allow an international company to exploit our workers."
In a phone interview, Johnson told Working In These Times, "We absolutely see the exploitation of cheap labor as the foundation of many of our industries. As slavery was exploitation based on free labor, we see a hand-in-glove connection between civil rights and labor rights. ... Those of us in the civil rights movement must support the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain."
The environment of fear cultivated by Nissan should offend all Americans who value human rights and the right to choose freely, he stated. “We in the NAACP believe that workers should have a voice in the workplace free of intimidation and retaliation. But we’ve got workers who feel intimidated if they support organized labor. The company has been very sophisticated in alluding to the possibility of the plant closing.”
Many African-Americans and white progressives retain the vivid memory of Martin Luther King Jr. merging civil rights with labor issues. On March 18, 1968, just days before his assassination on April 4 while in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers, King gave a speech outlining the interrelationship between the parallel struggles for rights:
"All labor has worth. … Don’t despair. Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice. The thing for you to do is stay together. … Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you’re also struggling for the right to be organized and be recognized."
That spirit—for the right to full recognition of one's humanity and for the right of free association—is animating the fight for unionization at Nissan in Mississippi.
Full Disclosure: UAW is a sponsor of In These Times.
About this author:
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.
By Bob King
Anyone looking for a current and dramatic example of how to recharge the U.S. economy and pay down our debt by increasing prosperity and revenues need look no further than Brazil under former President Luiz Ignacio Lula De Silva, affectionately known to Brazilians as "Lula."
Lula, twice elected and leaving office with an 80.5 percent approval rating, was an autoworker and union leader, rising from humble beginnings as a shoe shiner and street vendor to the country's highest position. His policies pulled more than 20 million out of poverty and changed the course of history.
Lula was an autoworker — a lathe operator in a copper factory. He rose through the ranks of union leadership while Brazil was ruled by a brutal military dictatorship that targeted trade unionists. After he led a series of massive strikes, he was arrested and imprisoned.
After a three-and-a-half year sentence — shortened by pressure from Brazilian workers and the UAW — Lula returned to the union and went on to help found the Workers' Party. In 2002, he was elected president.
When Lula became president, Brazil was in bad shape. Its public debt had doubled under his predecessor, it had a huge trade deficit, interest rates exceeding 20 percent and a currency that had lost half its value. Lula rejected austerity economics and enacted policies that aimed to build a middle class and reduce inequality. The results were stunning.
Lula's prosperity economic policies increased the growth rate in Brazil from 1.6 percent to more than 7 percent. Unemployment dropped from 11 percent to 5.3 percent and Brazil created 15 million new jobs while he was president. The minimum wage rose by 67 percent; he initiated a program to provide direct help for poor mothers, greatly reducing poverty and hunger.
Brazil withstood the global economic crisis better than almost any other nation by tightly regulating banks and rejecting the policy of austerity. Lula also rejected privatization of government services and instead invested $250 billion in Brazil's infrastructure so its economy could expand further and faster.
Most importantly, Lula directly attacked Brazil's inequality. Before he took office, Brazil had the fourth worst gap in the world between rich and poor. Once his policies had time to work, incomes of the poorest 10 percent of the population grew at nearly double the rate of the richest 10 percent. Lula's example shows what can happen in a country where workers' voices are clearly heard in the political process.
Lula recently met with workers from Nissan's plant in Canton, Miss., who told him about the threats and intimidation they face for seeking a fair union election process. Lula called it unimaginable that Nissan, which willingly works with unions in its home country and around the world, is denying workers in Canton the right to organize.
He pledged the full support of Brazilian unions to the Nissan workers, leverage that will be applied in one of the fastest-growing auto markets in the world. Stay tuned.
Bob King is president of the UAW. This opinion piece originally appeared in the Feb. 7, 2013 edition of the Detroit News.
WASHINGTON – UAW President Bob King summed up the union’s three days in D.C. in five words: “We’ve had an amazing week.”
The final session of the union’s 2013 UAW CAP Conference began at dawn and gradually built to a familiar and heartfelt adjournment with 1,500 energized delegates standing arm in arm singing “Solidarity Forever.”
From its annual Women’s Breakfast to V-CAP and GimmeFIVE awards, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a touching memorial video tribute to Region 5 Director Jim Wells, the morning program was jam-packed. It also included an organizing report and a compelling video featuring Nissan workers in Canton, Miss., trying to organize.
Here’s a recap of the day’s program:
IEB attends annual Women’s Breakfast
|UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada enthusiastically encouraged delegates to keep working to increase the political power of women. Photos by Don Lehman/UAW
UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada and the union’s entire International Executive Board gathered early Wednesday morning before a packed room of women and men for the annual Women’s Breakfast.
Once again, the purpose was to honor the achievements of women in the UAW and urge delegates to keep fighting to bring women into greater positions of influence and power in the public arena.
UAW President Bob King congratulated all women who have helped make the UAW a success for workers.
“It’s great that women are such a huge influence on, and part of, the UAW. We appreciate the women in our union,” said King.
UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams agreed.
“For the first time in UAW history, the president’s top administrative assistant is a woman, and the secretary-treasurer’s top administrative assistant is a woman. But we don’t mentor women as much as we should. We have to recognize people’s skills because we can’t afford to leave anyone behind,” said Williams.
Estrada, who directs the union’s Women’s Department, enthusiastically encouraged the audience to keep working to create an equal balance of power.
“Women are over 50 percent of the population, and yet we don’t have that much political power,” said Estrada. “We have to build coalitions by getting strategic about reaching out to all groups in society where there is injustice.”
Wasserman-Schultz: Owes her political start to support from labor.
Keynote speaker Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., thanked delegates for their support of Democratic candidates and issues, particularly because of President Barack Obama and the party’s consistent support of women’s issues.
Wasserman-Schultz said she owes her political start to support of the women of the local AFL-CIO in her Florida county where she started her career, and that type of networking and support of other women has to continue.
“I am one of only 276 women who have served in Congress,” she said. “We have to change that,” she said.
CAP delegate Marcie Walker, 59, is a Chrysler benefits representative in Kokomo, Ind. The UAW Local 685 member said she was inspired by what she heard.
“Women have historically taken a back seat to men. But that’s changing. Women are coming into their own now,” said Walker.
Valve assembler Melissa Anderson, 45, agreed. The mother of three and member of UAW Local 2069 at Volvo Heavy Duty in Dublin, Va., said women have power when they band together.
“We have a lot to say in this country. Our society has been taught to think it’s a man’s world. But we are breaking out of that shell and are no longer going to let men tell us what we can and can’t do,” said Anderson.
Panel tackles economics of poverty
What America needs now is an electric protest movement that will pull families out of poverty and turn back the clock on regressive politics that are desecrating the middle class, a distinguished panel told delegates Wednesday.
If things don’t change, the policy and political implications are grim, panelist Frances Fox Piven said.
“The United States now has the dubious honor of being the most unequal country in the world,” Piven said. “It’s bad not only for poor people, but for all of us.”
Marian Wright Edelman: We're in the
The panel, moderated by Sylvia Johnson of the UAW Legislative Department, featured children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman and Frances Fox Piven, a distinguished professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Piven has written widely on social movements for economic justice, and has coupled her academic work with political activism.
In decades past, the union stood as a bulwark to protect people, Pivens said. That changed in the 1970s when businesses fought back about worker protections and collective bargaining rights. Unions lost money and members, she said.
“But I think we are in the beginning of another era of mobilization. We’ve got to have a new movement or this country is going to hell,” said Edelman.
Forty years ago, Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund, whose mission is to ensure that every child has “a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start, and a moral start in life.”
“I thought I would be out of business right now,” she said. Instead, “we have failed to invest in our children, our families and our future workforce. If the foundation of your house is crumbling, you don’t say that you can’t afford to fix it.”
CAP report: V-CAP efforts are key
UAW National CAP Director Mary Beth Cahill (Video) congratulated members on doing a remarkable job during the nation’s last campaign season.
Cahill reported that UAW members overwhelmingly supported Obama. She attributed Obama’s re-election and the Democrats maintaining control in the Senate to the boots on the ground work of tens of thousands of UAW households.
Currently, 71.6 percent of the UAW’s active membership is registered to vote. Cahill urged every registered member to contribute to V-CAP. If even half that number would also contribute time, effort and just $10 per month to V-CAP, the UAW would be well on its way to being a mega-force in the campaign contribution game.
“Money alone will not determine the outcome of an election,” said Cahill. “But still we have to make sure that we have enough money to stay in the game and continue our grassroots efforts.”
UAW Local 3520 member and Freightliner worker Jerry Hodges saw President Obama speak during his national tour – not once, but twice. Hodges feels that the country is primed for the perfect storm. This also makes it the perfect climate to rebuild the infrastructure and combat unemployment.
“People are already starting to see in GOP-controlled states, that their agenda is targeted at labor. People are going to start to see that they have to stand up. They have to fight back. They are finally seeing the value of V-CAP contributions,” said Hodges.
“I’ve seen people who wouldn’t take my literature during the election season, and now they see that the decisions are going to start winding up on their coffee tables. They can’t deny the position we are in and how all working people are being attacked,” he added.
Joe Losier, a UAW Local 869 member and Chrysler worker, is a solid V-CAP contributor and supporter. He believes in being his brother’s keeper and that the UAW community extends to and from the workplace into the city blocks and surrounding neighborhoods. Losier said the union’s V-CAP efforts are key to that.
“Earlier in the conference someone referenced the [Bruce] Springsteen line, ‘Wherever this flag's flown we take care of our own.’ That hits home for me because that is how I’ve been raised. So when politicians or corporate managers try to separate and differentiate and choose who should have and who should not, I take it as a personal offense. My instinct is to fight for the disenfranchised. V-CAP gives us that fighting power,” said Losier.
UAW Local 1799 President Nancy Betz works at the last place any GOP member would ever want a union – a bank, specifically Commercial Bank and Trust of Pennsylvania.
For 37 years, workers have been proud to call themselves UAW members, and Betz has been a member for 28 years.
“The social issues alone are enough to make us pay attention to the political landscape, not just our membership but for all workers. In order to make a difference in the lives of all workers, we all have to be totally involved,” said Betz. “All workers need to be represented to get equality for all people. We don’t need to go back in time, and I’m afraid that’s what would happen if we didn’t stand up and fight back.”
Region 5 wins V-CAP award honors
It’s no surprise that UAW Region 5 was the shining star for the past year’s V-CAP contribution drive with a total of $914,000. But it was a bittersweet victory for the region after the recent passing of the region’s longtime director, Jim Wells, in September.
Region 5 Director Gary Jones accepts the V-CAP award on behalf of the region's active and retired members.
“I’m so honored to be up here accepting this reward on behalf of Region 5 members and retirees,” said Director Gary Jones. “I’m overwhelmed.”
The award is presented to the region that has raised the most V-CAP funds to support working family candidates. For the past 13 years, the region has been setting the standard with its members’ V-CAP participation.
“We talk about what V-CAP means and members begin to understand the importance when we connect the dots by saying supporting V-CAP is supporting your job. The federal auto loans are evidence in itself. I told them V-CAP made this happen because we supported the congressional leaders who supported working families,” said Michael Cartwright, UAW Local 276 president and member for 28 years.
At Cartwright’s local in Arlington, Texas, more than $12,000 was raised in 2012, and 25 percent of his membership contributes. And he hopes to keep improving on that number.
Region 1C Director
While all regions boosted V-CAP contribution totals, Region 1C Director Norwood Jewell took to the stage to grab the award for most improved. This is based on the number of members signed up and the level of giving.
“On behalf of the membership and backbone and heart of the region and the retirees, congratulations, Region 1C,” said Jewell.
And the GimmeFIVE awards go to …
Region 1 Director
Region 9A Director
Region 2B Director
The union’s GimmeFIVE Program celebrated its 2012 achievements with special awards presented Wednesday.
UAW Region 1 Director Charles Hall accepted the first-place award for outstanding overall recruitment of members. UAW Region 9A Director Julie Kushner accepted her region’s second-place award.
For the first time, an award was presented to the region with 25 percent of its membership active in the program.
UAW Region 2B Director Ken Lortz accepted that award on behalf of his region’s members.
The program has 65,326 members, including 8,388 added in 2012. Last year, GimmeFIVE members participated in more than 155 events.
UAW Local 455 member Lynette Royer said she was inspired.
“This conference has been so educational,” said Royer of Saginaw, Mich. “You learn why participating in GimmeFIVE is so important. It is one thing to show up to an event; it’s another when you know why it is so vitally important.”
The education and mobilization program was launched at the 35th UAW Constitutional Convention in June 2010 by President Bob King, the newly elected International Executive Board officers and regional directors, and local union delegates. GimmeFIVE recruits and engages members in a new and innovative mobilizing program to Organize, Build Power and Win Justice for our union and community.
Pelosi: Budget should reflect values
“Sequester is not a solution; it is out of the question. It gives a new meaning to March Madness,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., 12th District, told delegates. “We believe the budget should be a statement of our national values.”
The former Speaker of the House said that no matter what tricks Republicans are trying to play with the budget, trade or immigration, the voices of working families will be at the table.
“We can make a difference in the debate in the next couple of months, and we can make a difference in the election is 2014,” she said.
“I liked that Rep. Pelosi talked about how the Republicans had no problems with the budget when they were driving the deficit up with the wars, but now they complain about Medicare,” said Matt Beaver of UAW Local 699 in Saginaw, Mich. “They want to penalize those on Medicare but they don’t want to tax the wealthy.”
Jim Wells tribute: ‘A good friend and brother’
The family of the late Jim Wells with Region 5 Director Gary Jones.
When the house lights went down during today’s session, one of the videos being shown was a tribute to the memory and a life in pictures of Region 5 Director Jim Wells.
“We lost a good friend and brother. He was smart, tough, funny, and passionately committed to the workers,” said UAW President Bob King as he introduced the video shown during the conference. “His V-CAP awards are a tribute to his unchallenged and legendary leadership and recognition of the workers under Jim. Many others have tried to follow his example. Our union is a better one because of Jim’s lifetime of service. Jim and his family will always be a part of our family.”
“Jim was a very visible leader and very supportive, not just during negotiations, but when we had events, he was there to show us that we mattered,” said Michael Cartwright, Local 276 president in Arlington, Texas.
Gene Hurd, president of amalgamated UAW Local 509, has been a member since 1971. Hurd understood the strong support of V-CAP under Wells, a 13-year leader in contributions.
“When members don’t have VCAP checkoff, we sell tickets at their locations because that money supports the issues of unions and laborers. While we’re contemplating, our enemies are out here trying to undercut us with divisive and destructive legislation. Their mission is to break us and eliminate us,” said Hurd. “This is the lesson that Jim preached to us, no matter if we were at a quality meeting, a safety meeting or whatever else. For him, the workers came first. He left that legacy for us.”
Jeff Wright, a UAW Local 249 member from Ford’s Kansas City, Mo., plant, said Wells’ allegiance to workers was a value ingrained in the region’s members.
“Winning the V-CAP award this year again was an honor and a tribute to Jim. For most of the year, half of my plant was down, but we still managed to come out on top. It’s a testimony to what can be accomplished when we are all striving to achieve this goal,” said Wright.
Williams: The UAW is working hard with unions across the world on the transnational campaign.
Organizing: Comprehensive report
Delegates were updated on the UAW’s efforts to organize new workplaces and reinvigorate the labor movement.
UAW Vice President Joe Ashton (Video) directs the union’s Gaming sector, where organizing efforts are showing promise in the growing industry.
“We have an obligation to retirees to make this union strong in the future. A lot of casinos have organizing victories so far, but we need more. We have 12,000 new members in gaming, but the number of casinos continues to grow. We need more victories, because the worst day in a union shop is the best day in a nonunion shop,” said Ashton.
UAW Vice President Estrada, who is leading organizing efforts with parts suppliers, told delegates about the efforts to organize workers at parts supplier Flex-n-Gate.
“We have to stand up for all suppliers. Flex-n-Gate is very profitable and growing but won’t bargain in good faith. The workers are exposed to dangerous chemicals and harsh working conditions every day,” Estrada said.
The domestic automakers have to support this, said Estrada, because their parts are dependent on what happens at suppliers. Four workers described the horrific working conditions at Flex-n-Gate and reiterated that they love their jobs but want safe working conditions and enough money so they don’t have to be on welfare, which is the case for many workers there.
Secretary-Treasurer Williams heads up transnational efforts. He told delegates about a UAW organizing victory at Navistar in Tulsa, Okla., with 700 new members and another 500 workers expected to be hired by the end of 2013.
“One huge challenge is rebuilding the labor movement and eliminating the injustice of the two-tier system. The two-tier system will be in place until we can organize the transnationals,” said Williams.
Williams showed a moving video outlining the struggles of workers in Canton, Miss., to organize for a voice on the job at Nissan. The video showed the widespread community support for the organizing campaign and its connection with the history of Mississippi’s civil rights struggles. It ended with a moving rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” which prompted delegates to rise to their feet, hold hands and sing along.
“The community support for Nissan is a powerful statement. The community alliance has complete ownership of the campaign, with a committee comprised of religious, civic and other leaders,” said Williams.
Actor and activist Danny Glover is the campaign’s spokesman, he said, and another strength of this campaign.
Williams said the UAW is working hard with international unions, particularly the Japanese Auto Workers (JAW) union, and has received tremendous support for the Nissan and other transnational organizing campaigns in the United States.
“This Nissan campaign is a remarkable message to companies all over the world: You can’t come here and intimidate workers,” said Williams.
Holly Baumel is a member of UAW Local 95 in Janesville, Wis., who said she was inspired by the organizing presentations.
“People think unions aren’t needed anymore, that they’re just there to get all the cushy stuff for workers,” said the Blackhawk Area Credit Union worker. “Unions are so desperately needed now. I’ve been following the Nissan campaign on Facebook and social media, and I know that that’s not true. They’re needed now more than ever.”
CAP delegates sing 'We Shall Overcome' along with Nissan workers featured in the video.
UAW President Bob King says companies that prevent workers from having a voice in the United States should not be allowed to do this.
“I want Nissan management to know that just like our sisters and brothers at labor hunger strikes, just like the great foremothers and forefathers who said moral rights and human rights are most important, we are going to demand our justice,” King said.
Gwynne Cobb, Sandra Davis and Joan Silvi contributed to this story.