June 4, 2014 at 11:06 pm

New UAW chief urged to tackle 2-tier wages

UAW President Dennis Williams after his election on Wednesday. The UAW secretary-treasurer received 98 percent of the vote. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

United Auto Workers delegates elected Dennis Williams on Wednesday as the union’s 11th president. But some of those delegates had an immediate message for Williams: It’s time to end the controversial and divisive two-tier wage system.

Williams, the UAW secretary-treasurer, received 98 percent of the vote in Wednesday’s roll-call presidential election. He plans to make the subject of two-tier wages a prominent part of his first presidential address this afternoon.

Interviews with more than a dozen UAW delegates interviewed following Williams’ victory Wednesday indicated that the two-tier wage debate overwhelmingly is the top objective they want Williams to attack. Detroit automakers in 2007 pushed for the two-tier wage system as a way to cut costs.

Veteran workers make about $28 an hour, but newer workers — even if they are doing the same job as a veteran worker — have a starting wage about half that amount, and their top hourly pay is capped at $19.

Williams has said that he wants to “bridge the gap,” but offered no comment on the subject when asked Wednesday.

Robert Ramirez, a delegate from Local 600 in Dearborn, said Williams must improve on the current “division of the union, from leadership to the plant floor.”

“We need to get back the stuff that we gave back” during the few contract negotiations, Ramirez said, noting that veteran auto workers have not received raises in a decade. They have, however, received bonuses.

Raymond Herrick, a delegate from Local 163 — Detroit Diesel — said the reasons to eliminate the two-tier wage system are two-fold: To ensure equal pay for equal work, and to mend a factory floor division, between those making the higher wage and those getting half as much.

“It’s caused a major riff among union members,” he said. “We need to eliminate two-tier.”

At least one labor expert believes Williams’ top priority should be increasing membership, and not entirely focusing on sufficing current members.

“As a unionist, his priority should be to grow the union and organize successfully,” said Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “The workers point of view is very narrow-minded. Williams’ point of view should be looking at what the union will look like in five to 10 years.”

Stevetta Johnson, a delegate from Local 6000, which represents state employees, said two-tier wages divided the union and made for uncomfortable encounters in the workplace.

“(Williams) definitely needs to negotiate better contracts and take the two-tier system away,” she said.

Also important to the rank-and-file is growing the union and ensuring workers in right-to-work states such as Michigan remain dues-paying members at the end of the contracts with Detroit automakers.

“We got what we wanted,” said Denise Taylor, a delegate from Local 400, which is based in Utica, of Williams’ election. “Now we need to build the UAW and educate people about its benefits.”

'A new day in the UAW'

Williams handily defeated Gary Walkowicz, a longtime union worker from Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant who has been outspoken about many of the UAW’s policies and a perennial presidential challenger to the retiring Bob King. Walkowicz was Williams’ lone challenger.

“It’s humbling,” Williams said during a 45-second impromptu press conference following his victory. “I’m excited for our union.”

Williams collected 3,215 of the 3,270 votes.

“It’s a new day in the UAW,” declared Local 155 delegate Latrello Sephers.

Walkowicz, who was among the vocal minority on Tuesday who voted against a 25-percent dues hike, garnered 49 votes.

“I ran with a purpose of bringing a message from the membership to the convention,” Walkowicz said after the defeat. “And I did.

“We need a different policy and a different direction,” he added. “I hope (Williams) brings that.”

2 more elected; 2 re-elected

Also elected Wednesday: Gary Casteel as the union’s new secretary-treasurer, and Norwood Jewell, as an international union vice president. Cindy Estrada and Jimmy Settles were re-elected as vice presidents.

Casteel, 56, a second-generation UAW member, was elected director of UAW’s Region 8 — which covers the southeast — in 2002 and is a member of Local 3036 in Memphis, Tenn.

Jewell, 56, was elected director of UAW’s Region 1C — which is headquartered in Flint and covers an 11-county area — in 2010 and has been a member of Local 659 since 1976. He was previously assistant director of the region and was bargaining committee chairman at Flint Metal Center during the 1998 strike between GM and the union.

Estrada, 45, was elected a UAW vice president in 2010 and is the first Latina elected to serve as a UAW international officer. She is currently responsible for directing UAW independents, parts and suppliers, public sector and heath care servicing, and women’s department. Estrada began her UAW career in 1995 when then-Region 1A director King assigned her to organize workers at Mexican Industries in Detroit.

Settles, 64, was first elected a UAW vice president in 2006 and was re-elected four years ago. He was a former UAW regional director.

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