Sunday, June 11, 2006

Union dissidents wage lonely battle

****special report: third in a three-part series****
1.53M Members in 1979
557K Members in 2005

About this series:

Saturday, June 10, 2006

UAW: Can it survive? Last in a three-part series

Union dissidents wage lonely battle

Louis Aguilar / The Detroit News

GRAND RAPIDS -- Gregg Shotwell, a Delphi Corp. machinist in Coopersville, says his in-box fills up every day with e-mails of support and death threats because of his fierce criticism of United Auto Workers leaders.

Todd M. Jordan, a Delphi machinist in Kokomo, Ind., and founder of the Future of the Union Web site, has been called a communist and a liar in anonymous pamphlets protesting his bid to be a delegate to the UAW's Constitutional Convention in Las Vegas next week.

Shotwell, 55, and Jordan, 28, are in the vanguard of one of the most aggressive and organized dissident movements the UAW has seen in years.

On their Web sites they regularly churn out manifestos decrying the "corporate unionism" of UAW leaders they say are allowing automakers to dismantle the social contract of lifetime jobs, generous wages and rock-solid retirement benefits.

"Cooperation, concession, and competition will save jobs and enhance the quality of our work life when Elvis returns," Shotwell, a leader of the UAW splinter group Soldiers of Solidarity, wrote in the latest edition of his Internet column, Live Bait & Ammo.

Next week, Shotwell and other dissidents will take their activism to Las Vegas in hopes of convincing their union brethren to join their movement. While some see them as heroes, labor experts say the dissidents won't have much impact.

"They are a small number of people with very big mouths that have attracted way too much media attention," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

"Their protests have been much smaller in number than advertised and I don't see evidence they are gaining strength. They are trying to drag the union back about 50 years to a past that no longer exists."

The dissidents remain undaunted. "I would rather die fighting than die not doing a thing," said Las Vegas-bound Justin West, of UAW Local 2488, which represents workers from Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s plant in Normal, Ill.

Union losing members

If ever the time was ripe for resistance within the UAW, it's now. The union is in crisis. Membership is near an all-time low as U.S. carmakers cut jobs and shut plants amid intense global competition. The union has ceded ground on hard-won benefits to help Detroit survive.

But even the dissident groups, which get hundreds of thousands of hits on their Web sites every month, are not sure how many supporters they have among the approximately 2,000 delegates coming to Las Vegas from across the country. Estimates range from 35 to 200.

Whatever the number, they know it won't be enough to thwart the re-election of UAW President Ron Gettelfinger or challenge any key union positions.

"I don't know if we have enough at the convention to make serious changes," West said. "But we got enough to start rocking the boat. Everyone knows that big changes are headed our way and we got little time to stand up against it."

Many expect to be cut off at the microphones when they criticize union policies and positions. "Some people consider it a badge of honor when you get your microphone cut off," Shotwell said.

It happened to him during a 1999 special convention when he challenged then-UAW President Stephen Yokich during a Q&A session.

Shotwell wanted a guarantee that the pending spinoff of Delphi from General Motors Corp. wouldn't ultimately result in tens of thousands of UAW-protected jobs disappearing or being shipped overseas. He received a standing ovation.

According to a convention transcript, Yokich told Shotwell: "Well, brother, I guess you haven't been listening to the leadership. No, no, you're not going back to the mic. I don't know how many times you have to say it for people to believe you, OK?"

In fact, Delphi's bankruptcy last year does threaten to cost thousands of union jobs.

The dissidents likely won't get beyond theatrics in Las Vegas, said Robert Chiaravalli, a labor lawyer and principal at Strategic Labor & Human Resources LLC in West Bloomfield.

Chiaravalli says the activists don't have the clout to put up their own candidates to run for key leadership positions at the convention. Among the posts to be filled are the vice presidents in charge of the UAW departments for General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, who will be key players in contract talks next year.

"Nor will they likely get anyone of their mindset that will be part of the team for the 2007 negotiations for the upcoming Big Three talks," Chiaravalli said.

Buyouts cited as success

Further proof that the dissidents are a vocal minority is the number of GM and Delphi workers who have accepted buyouts or early retirement offers to help pare the companies' work forces.

GM is offering incentives to all 113,000 of its hourly workers, ranging from $35,000 and full benefits for those who retire early to as much as $140,000 and already-accrued pension benefits for those who leave and sever all ties to the company.

On Friday, Delphi and the UAW said an early-retirement package negotiated earlier this year would be extended to more workers and cash buyouts ranging from $40,000 to $140,000 would be available to those not eligible to retire.

More than 20,000 GM workers and nearly 10,000 at Delphi had signed up by early June.

"The number of workers who have accepted that package says that a lot of members think their leadership is getting them a good deal," Chiaravalli said. "The dissidents will not alter the direction of the union."

Dissident delegate Wendy Thompson knows how hard it is to change the UAW. The 58-year-old retiree from Local 235 in Detroit was part of a major UAW dissident movement called New Directions that began 20 years ago. Then, as today, the protesters complained that union leaders had become too willing to bend to management demands.

"We're basically fighting a one-party rule that was set up by rules established by Walter Reuther 50 years ago to root out communists," Thompson said. "I know plenty of people who have taken buyouts more out of fear and not as a sign of approval for the leadership."

Even so, most of the dissidents haven't been able to mobilize their local bargaining units, and several activists said they had to overcome nasty campaigns locally to get to Las Vegas.

Future of the Union founder Jordan and two other workers in Kokomo lost their bids to be convention delegates. They say fliers they posted at the plant were routinely torn down or defaced with profanity. Jordan says his slate lost because the local union used phone calls to heavily lobby retirees and urge them to vote against the dissidents.

Jordan is not a communist but does preach socialist principles. He has a framed poster of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara on the wall of his small office, where he spends three hours a day updating his Web site. "Che was a great leader for the rights of the people," Jordan said. "He fought against communists and the imperialists."

Change goads some activists

The UAW local believed to be sending the most dissident delegates to Las Vegas is Local 974 in Peoria, Ill., which represents 5,700 workers at Caterpillar Inc.

The maker of industrial and heavy-duty vehicles and equipment is often hailed as the most successful American corporate turnaround in the last decade.

Besides big investments in modernizing factories, outsourcing work to lower-cost countries and adapting Japanese-influenced management techniques, the company waged a seven-year battle with the UAW and weathered two strikes by hiring replacement workers.

The UAW held out for contracts that Caterpillar said would have driven it out of the country or into bankruptcy. The union eventually accepted a two-tier pay structure with starting wages as low as $13 an hour -- almost half the hourly rate of other workers. It also reduced pension benefits, took away job security for at least a decade, and offered a new pay scale tied more to skills than seniority.

Caterpillar's work force has grown about 25 percent in the past two years, including thousands of new U.S. jobs. Its stock price has more than tripled. Last year, profits increased 40 percent, to $2.85 billion, on a 20 percent gain in sales. With more than half of its sales now outside the United States, Caterpillar has become one of the country's biggest exporters.

CEO Jim Owens likes to tout the bottom-line results as why American businesses and workers should embrace globalization. Over the past two years, Owens has taken home a performance-based pay package with an estimated value between $18 million and $38 million. Further, 50,000 nonunion employees split a bonus pool of $445 million and top executives were awarded options with an estimated value of between $80 million and $206 million. Shareholders earned spectacular returns.

"If this is the future of the UAW, if this is the new social contract, then it's terrible," said Rob Wilson, one of eight dissident candidates from the Peoria local heading to Las Vegas.

"You hear all these people, CEOs, academics and analysts say that the only way to survive is get on board with globalization, ship all our jobs overseas and let our wages go way down," Wilson said.

"But none of those people preaching that ever talk about the huge swath of American workers that it leaves out to dry.

"We used to be the people who made up the middle class, and that's going down. Have you ever heard anyone say 'What's going to happen to all the people like us?' "

You can reach Louis Aguilar at (313) 222-2760 or


Post a Comment

<< Home