Thursday, June 22, 2006

UAW optimism belies obstacles

Saturday, June 17, 2006
UAW optimism belies obstacles
Solutions remain vague as leaders try to assure anxious workers of weakened union's future.
Brett Clanton / The Detroit News

LAS VEGAS -- Like gamblers confident they can beat the house, the United Auto Workers came to Las Vegas this week for the union's 34th constitutional convention with an optimism that belied the long odds it faces.

In speech after speech, UAW leaders shouted that the union has plenty of fight left in it.Speakers and politicians railed against Bush administration policies they claim are destroying the middle class. And the rank-and-file -- some wearing T-shirts proclaiming "American jobs are worth fighting for" -- waited for their turn at the mike to make the same points.

A turnaround won't be easy for the 71-year-old union. With U.S. automakers shedding jobs as fast as they're building cars, the union's membership is in sharp decline and its influence is weakening. UAW leaders acknowledged the unprecedented challenges in unusually frank terms.

But their game plan for rebuilding the UAW -- and the labor movement itself -- was often vague, and wholly ignored many of the toughest questions.

What happens when more than 30,000 UAW-represented auto workers exit with buyouts from General Motors Corp. and bankrupt supplier Delphi Corp.? Can the union afford a strike at Delphi over proposed wage cuts and factory closings? What concessions will be on the table next year during difficult talks with Detroit's struggling automakers?

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, re-elected Wednesday to a second term, has the unenviable task of steering the union through it all, his legacy tied to how he navigates this tumultuous period.

Future means changes

Whatever happens, the UAW that convenes in 2010 for the next constitutional convention likely will be very different from the union of today.

That's why it is tempting to view this year's event, which wrapped up Thursday, as something of a last hoorah for a proud union.

But UAW leaders and their allies made exactly the opposite point in lectern-pounding speeches spread over four days at the MGM Grand Casino.

Gettelfinger set the tone early with an hour-long address Monday morning.

"The skeptics who say this is the 'twilight of the UAW' -- that we're 'toast' -- that our epitaph has already been written -- don't know who we are and where we came from," he shouted as applause drowned out his words.

"We're going to keep fighting for what we believe in … at the collective bargaining table … in the courts … in statehouses and the halls of Congress … in our communities … and where push comes to shove, on the picket lines."

On the walls around him, in a giant conference room inside the MGM Grand, were signs in UAW blue and gold that cheered him on: "Stop the race to the bottom," "Don't Agonize. Organize" and "Good jobs are worth fighting for." At every program break, upbeat music blared over any suggestion that these are anxious times.

But outside the great hall, in the conference center lobby and on a stoop where smokers huddled, it wasn't hard to find doubters.

Finding direction

The most vocal were a small group of the 1,300 convention delegates, who called a meeting Monday night to express concern over the union's direction.

"For all the talk of the union being at a crossroads, there wasn't enough talk about a way forward," said Bill Parker, president of UAW Local 1700, which represents workers at Chrysler's Sterling Heights Assembly Plant.

About a dozen delegates joined Parker in a small out-of-the-way conference room in the bowels of the casino, as hundreds of other delegates met several floors above.

"They look at us as if we're radicals," said Mike Yanoulakis, also from Local 1700 who joined the dissident group. "But we're not. We're just good union people who care."

The idea that the union would hold its constitutional convention in a locale as decadent Las Vegas at a time when so many workers are losing jobs did not sit well with some union members back home. But the UAW said it chose Las Vegas for its heavily-unionized work force, ability to accommodate large groups and affordable rates.

During and after convention sessions, some UAW delegates indulged in their surroundings.

Easily identifiable in UAW golf shirts stitched with their name and home plant, they strolled the Vegas strip, parked themselves at slot machines and lounged by the pool.

But most delegates stayed in the big hall, listening attentively as the marathon convention rolled on.

Optimism, despite losses

UAW leaders repeatedly referred to the union's success in signing 66,000 new members outside the auto industry during the past four years. But there was no mention of a decades-long membership slide that continues to eclipse gains, reducing the union's ranks to just under 600,000 today, from 1.5 million in 1979.

Many delegates insisted the UAW, no matter its size, will always be a force to be reckoned with.

"We may be smaller," said Bob Roth, retiring director of the UAW's Region 1C, which represents workers in Flint, Lansing and other Michigan cities. "But we will be just as strong."

Nobody made the point more forcefully than UAW Vice President Bob King, the long-time head of organizing for the union who this week was tapped to lead its Ford division.

Irked by a newspaper headline that characterized the convention's tone as "somber," King vowed that the UAW will triumph despite historic challenges.

"We're not going to give up," he shouted. "We're not depressed."

Applause erupted. King urged delegates to get on their feet and "with the highest amount of energy you have," just start moving.

What followed was a spontaneous rally, accompanied by Shania Twain's "We are Going to Rock This Country," with delegates dancing and circling the hall for nearly an hour.

As song after song played, delegates hugged. They high-fived their leaders. They sang where they stood. And for a moment, the troubles facing the union seemed to melt into the background.

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


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