Thursday, June 08, 2006

Reuther fights union battle in D.C.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Reuther fights union battle in D.C.

He is leading the charge for change in the auto industry, just as his family has for years.

David Shepardson / The Detroit News

WASHINGTON -- At a time when Detroit automakers are cutting tens of thousands of jobs and closing dozens of plants, the United Auto Workers is fighting some of its biggest battles far from the factory floor.

Amid sweeping change in the U.S. auto industry, the UAW is waging a political battle on Capital Hill to push for legislation that will preserve the jobs and benefits the union worked for decades to secure.

Quietly leading the charge, as he has for the past quarter century, is Alan Reuther, the UAW's legislative director in Washington.

Reuther brings to the job a storied heritage. He is the nephew of Walter Reuther, the founder and former president of the modern-day UAW. He is the son of Roy Reuther, who worked at Chevrolet's gear and axle plant, became an assistant organizing director for the UAW in Flint and helped lead a sit-down strike against General Motors Corp.

"Our lobbying has never depended on the number of people we have here," Reuther said in an interview. "We can't compete with corporate America (or) the Japanese companies on numbers or funding. Our strength is on our grassroots ability of our membership to communicate our issues."

In Washington, the UAW has a full plate. The union has called for assistance to stem the decline of manufacturing jobs. It has sought to relieve health care costs that have helped put Detroit automakers at a competitive disadvantage with foreign makers unburdened by similar expenses. And it successfully batted down a pension bill that could have cost Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. billions.

The UAW has also called for reforming bankruptcy laws that make it easier for companies to invalidate union contracts and cracking down on currency "manipulation" they allege by China and Japan that makes imports less expensive here.

U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, said the UAW's mission on Capitol Hill "is more important than ever when you have an industry that has taken the kind of hits that this one has."

David Bonior, a former Michigan congressman and Wayne State University labor professor, calls Reuther "the dean of lobbyists who advocate on behalf of working people."

"He's very strategic in his thinking," Bonior said. "He approaches you on the issues based on facts and rational arguments as opposed to politics."

Reuther has been active on fuel economy issues, after the Bush administration sought authority to raise the standards for passenger cars.

In testimony before House and Senate committees, he opposed big increases in standards by taking a similar position to the automakers, saying those measures would have "serious, adverse effects on the jobs of our members."

Jim Johnston, GM's chief lobbyist from 1976 until 1994, said that while the UAW doesn't have as much money to lobby as other groups, the size of its membership -- 1.3 million active workers and retirees across the country -- gives it plenty of influence.

"The biggest resource is votes," Johnston said. "You can have all the money in the world but it doesn't matter much if you don't have the votes."

Reuther calls the climate in Washington difficult for organized labor, given what he calls the anti-labor attitudes of the Bush administration and most Republicans.

"Fundamentally, this administration isn't terribly concerned about the Big Three having problems. I don't think they would even be troubled by bankruptcies," Reuther said. "They would see that as a way to quote, 'restructure the industry,' and wind up getting rid of defined pension benefits. It would also shrink the UAW and for them it's both a political win and it advances their agenda on benefits."

By all accounts, the UAW's biggest recent success in Washington was the halting in December of bills to reform the government's insurance fund for pensions, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. The proposed changes might have forced companies like GM and Ford, with junk bond credit ratings, to speed up pension plan payments.

A proposed bill in the House of Representatives could have prevented the automakers from using their pension funds to pay for early retirement or plant-shutdown benefits. It also would have rewritten accounting rules to cut back on credits for early pension fund contributions, forcing companies to freeze benefits.

U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Flint, said Reuther negotiated directly with key Republicans and was involved in the negotiations that led to a bill being passed that the UAW could support.

"He has that Reuther genetic makeup," said Kildee, who has been in Congress for 30 years. "Alan looks upon his job as a duty he has to be successful for the members. The members appreciate that he isn't another hired hand."

You can reach David Shepardson at (202) 662 - 8735 or


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