June 3, 2014 at 11:01 pm

UAW votes to raise dues 25% after angry debate

Outgoing UAW president Bob King leaves the stage at the end of Monday's convention at Cobo Center in Detroit on Monday. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

Detroit — Delegates at the United Auto Workers constitutional convention voted Tuesday for the first union dues rate increase since 1967 after a heated two-and-a-half-hour debate. Workers will see a 25 percent hike over current dues.

The increase, from two hours of monthly pay to two-and-a-half hours, takes effect in August. It is aimed at helping the UAW boost its strike fund to bargain against employers, including Detroit automakers in 2015. Supporters call it crucial to ensuring the union can command good contracts with a threat of a strike. Opponents argue that workers can’t afford to pay more.

The dues hike is expected to generate $45 million annually, all of which will be directed into the strike fund, which sits at about $600 million, down from about $1 billion in 2006. The union has tapped its strike fund over the last few years by $30 million to $40 million a year to pay operating expenses, resisting dues hikes during the downturn.

“People are committed to having a strong union,” UAW President Bob King told reporters at Cobo Center, arguing the debate was healthy and showed members were passionate. He and the likely incoming president, Dennis Williams, the current secretary-treasurer, brushed off suggestions the higher dues could prompt members in right-to-work states to opt out of the union.

Gary Walkowicz, a bargaining committee representative at Ford’s Dearborn Truck plant who is challenging the union-backed Williams, urged the union to put the vote to its nearly 400,000 members. As he spoke, some opponents used party noisemakers to drown him out.

After being pressed by two delegates to quiet opponents, King restored order and allowed Walkowicz another turn to speak.

A vote of the entire membership could have been expensive and brought out union critics who could have sought to convince workers to oppose the union.

Tuesday’s debate included 40 speakers who were evenly divided on both sides. When opponents failed to have the requisite 307 delegates support a roll-call vote, King called for a voice vote. That was too close to call, so King asked for a show of hands, which revealed far more supporters than opponents.

The historic dues hike vote took less than a minute, but the debate is likely to again take place four years from now at the next convention, when delegates would have to vote to extend the increase.

UAW spending criticized

For a veteran autoworker making $28 an hour, the dues increase will amount to $14 a month, or $168 a year. Newer union members in the lower $14-an-hour wage tier would pay half that amount.

There has been criticism about UAW spending on trips to Washington, Las Vegas and “fancy parties.” Others are upset that the union has spent millions of dollars on recent political efforts, including the attempt to organize Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., and fighting Michigan’s 2012 right-to-work law.

King denied suggestions that the union has been “irresponsible” in handling its finances. He said the union has made “dramatic changes” to improve its balance sheet.

“We have a common goal,” King said to an opposing member. “We have an honest disagreement.”

What remains unclear is whether the UAW will lose dues-paying members from right-to-work states like Michigan now that dues will increase 25 percent.

Williams downplayed the impact, noting that in some right-to-work states the UAW had 97 percent membership.

“If we do our jobs and educate our members, I’m not worried about right to work,” Williams said.

He said if the union were to strike against a company like General Motors Co., it would cost the union about $79 million a month. King noted that the cost of past strikes, including one against Caterpillar Inc., exceeded $300 million.

Some who voted against the increase indicated Tuesday they would continue to pay dues and support the union.

Among those voting against the dues rate increase were Rich Boyer, a Local 140 delegate and millwright at Chrysler’s Warren Truck Plant, who said the union will “be in trouble” if the union does not negotiate to eliminate two-tier wages with Detroit automakers in 2015.

“This membership is divided,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the time (to raise dues).”

Others who voted against the dues hike chastised international union representatives for not backing local efforts. “When we needed you, you weren’t there for us,” said Charles Tipton, a delegate from Local 912 in Lexington, Ky.

Dissenters outnumbered

But the number of dissenters, who grew more vocal in the day prior to the vote, were turned back by the majority, which view the dues increase as a way to better position the union for future negotiations.

Marcella Brundidge, a Local 889 delegate who works at Chrysler’s Jefferson North Assembly Plant, supported the dues increase.

“We have not had a raise in our union dues since 1967,” Brundidge said from the sidelines of the convention on Tuesday. “And we need to be more economically, financially stable.”

Bill Lucas, a delegate from Local 2269 near Columbus, Ohio, said the dues hike should not deter workers at foreign manufacturing plants — like the VW plant, which voted down union representation in February — from eventually joining UAW forces.

“Workplace gains made through collective bargaining, they trickle down to those who are not in a union,” he said.

Several members who were on strike for months in the 1990s urged support. “How are we going to fight again if we don’t have the ammunition?” one asked.

Rebecca Watson, a delegate from Local 1268 in Belvidere, Ill., said she had initially opposed the dues hike, but decided it was in the best interest of the UAW.

“It’s tough to ask them to raise their dues. Our belts are already fairly tight,” she said, saying many members hadn’t had a pay raise in years. Veteran auto workers haven’t had a raise in a decade.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com