Wednesday, June 14, 2006

UAW: No giving up!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006
UAW: No giving up!
Gettelfinger to fight, but says change is required
Brett Clanton / The Detroit News

LAS VEGAS -- United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger had a message Monday for those who say his 71-year-old union is losing its way, its will and its solidarity in the face of a historic downsizing of the domestic auto industry: The UAW isn't going anywhere.

While acknowledging the challenges facing his union are unlike any in the past, Gettelfinger said the UAW remains committed to protecting workers from forces that threaten to dismantle decades of hard-fought union gains.

"We're not going to surrender," Gettelfinger told 1,300 cheering delegates at the UAW's 34th Constitutional Convention in Las Vegas.

"We're not going to lower our sights, give up our dreams, or give up our fight for a better world for our children and grandchildren."

But, he said, the UAW may have to do more to help the U.S. auto industry restructure to compete against fast-growing foreign rivals.

"Like it or not, these challenges aren't the kind that can be ridden out," Gettelfinger said. "They demand new and far-sighted solutions -- and we must be an integral part of developing those solutions."

The dueling messages -- calling for both defiance and compromise -- highlight the perilous tightrope Gettelfinger will have to walk as he prepares to enter a second four-year term atop one of the nation's largest industrial unions.

Not only does he have to appease the members who put him in office and be true to the union's history, he also must grapple with how to help UAW employers compete in a global economy.

That balancing act is echoed in the theme of the UAW convention this week: "Honoring our past, forging our future."

And it is on the minds of the hundreds of union delegates in Las Vegas, creating an undercurrent of anxiety at the convention, which wraps up Thursday.

Gettelfinger's "state-of-the-union" speech comes amid an unprecedented downsizing of the U.S. auto industry.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have announced plans to cut 60,000 jobs and close all or part of two dozen U.S. factories in the next few years. Bankrupt auto supplier Delphi Corp. may eliminate another 20,000 jobs. Many other industries with UAW-represented workers -- from aerospace to agriculture -- also have struggled in recent years.

Since 2000, the union has lost 160,000 jobs in the auto parts industry alone, a loss that last year helped reduce UAW membership to just under 600,000, down from its 1979 peak of 1.5 million.

Despite the headwinds, the UAW can emerge from this period as a healthier union better equipped for the decades ahead, said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California in Berkeley.

"This is potentially a point of renewal, rather than defeat for the union," Shaiken said. "It's a crisis, and a crisis can mean opportunity as well as catastrophe."

While Gettelfinger said organizing efforts have meant 66,000 new members in the past four years, the gains have not been enough to offset the losses.

The full-frontal assault has created a sense of helplessness among many union members.

"Things that once seemed rock solid -- jobs we've done and done well, the retirement and health-care coverage we've earned, our right to a collective voice in our workplace -- are threatened by many corporate CEOs, right-wing politicians and anti-union groups," Gettelfinger said.

"What's at stake is more than just our paychecks and benefits. What's at stake is our shared vision of an America that lives up to its promise of freedom, opportunity, dignity and social and economic justice for all."

That idea is under attack from Bush administration policies that allow free trade with countries that manipulate their currencies and shortchange workers, weaken union organizing efforts and exclude millions of Americans from access to healthcare insurance, Gettelfinger said. He urged union members to be active in congressional elections this year with a goal of unseating the GOP majority.

With U.S. automakers especially struggling, the UAW last fall agreed to historic mid-contract concessions on health care costs at Ford and GM. The landmark deal will shift more medical expenses to hourly retirees and ask active workers to forgo future pay raises to help pay for their medical care.

Though Gettelfinger called it the "most painful decision I've had to make as your president," the UAW may be asked to swallow deeper cuts at Delphi, the bankrupt auto supplier that was spun off from GM in 1999.

Delphi is seeking deep wage cuts and plans to close or sell 21 of its 29 U.S. factories.

Gettelfinger blasted Delphi for a "perverted business strategy" that would cut blue-collar jobs and then reward executives with rich bonuses if the turnaround is successful.

Gettelfinger also took a shot at Ford and GM for laying off thousands of workers as part of broader restructuring plans.

"As we've said many times, these companies cannot downsize their way to profitability," he said.

Gettelfinger's fiery speech, which was frequently interrupted by wild applause and a handful of standing ovations, was just what Craig Jeffrey wanted to hear.

"I agreed with everything he had to say," said the 46-year-old delegate from UAW Local 2304, representing workers at Autodie International in Grand Rapids. "We have to come tighter as a people and as a work force. If we don't, they're going to bring the Third World to us."

But there were others who took issue with Gettelfinger and the course he has plotted for the union. As delegates and guests filed into the MGM Grand Casino's conference center, Gary Walkowicz handed out yellow fliers urging union members not to stand for any more erosion of union gains.

With the UAW facing a renegotiation of its labor contracts with automakers in '07, Walkowicz is concerned that the union is going to fork over benefits he has earned during 41 years on the job.

"The stance of the union should not be to make concessions," said Walkowicz, 57, a production worker at Ford's Dearborn truck plant. "Concessions have never saved jobs."

You can reach Brett Clanton at (313) 222-2612 or


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