June 4, 2014 at 1:00 am

OUR EDITORIAL

Editorial: UAW must set fresh course

Union's new president must shape an improved future that's focused on boosting membership and not politics

As the UAW formally elects a new president this week, the organization must realistically assess its current capabilities and carve out a new landscape for the future, particularly in light of recent setbacks.

New leader Dennis Williams must prioritize workers and membership gains above the political and ideological pursuits which occupied his predecessor, Bob King.

Williams takes on the organization amidst many challenges, including a declining membership, failure to organize the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant, Michigan’s passage of right to work and evaporating financial reserves.

Against this backdrop to his presidency, Williams’ approach must be pragmatic and grassroots, and he may need to consider a new bargaining system when it comes to how the union has traditionally handled contract talks with Detroit’s Big Three automakers.

To start, UAW leadership must focus less on Washington, D.C., and more on the shop floor. Beyond economics and wages, leadership has to sell the other benefits of union representation, including recognized grievance procedures, a collective voice and leverage to improve working conditions that an individual wouldn’t have alone.

If leadership can’t make that case, current and potential members will continue to question just what union participation offers them, especially if wage negotiations don’t produce significant gains.

“It’s going to mean getting down in the grass again,” said Sean McAlinden, executive vice president of research and chief economist at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

King’s active political involvement — which included solidifying the UAW as an adjunct of the Democratic Party and outreach to many progressive groups with agendas not necessarily reflective of his middle class membership — made members’ interests secondary.

“When you’re doing that, you’re not talking to workers. That kind of organizing needs to be rediscovered,” McAlinden said.

The UAW won a 25 percent dues increase to resupply its strike fund, which has decreased by almost $300 million since 2006. Under King, the union squandered millions of dollars on unsuccessful ballot initiatives in Michigan aimed at thwarting right to work. His defeat on those measures paved the way for passage of right to work in 2012.

And while right-to-work laws haven’t significantly affected union participation in other states (Texas, for example, has seen almost no membership decline), Michigan union employees can now opt out of paying dues if they choose.

The right-to-work option combined with another hurdle — the expectation of UAW members that the two-tier wage structure will be substantially altered now that the automakers are profitable — makes Williams’ upcoming contract talks more challenging than usual.

The talks will be a defining moment in his legacy. Williams has already signaled his desire to eliminate the two-tier system, which was set up in 2007 to help the Big Three make smaller cars profitable against foreign competition.

But Williams also must prioritize keeping small car production in the United States. Eliminating the tiers could send production and jobs to other countries.

Automakers won’t give up two-tier wages easily. More than 40 percent of Chrysler’s employees fall into the lower wage class, and Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne said last month he wants to eliminate the higher tier altogether through a phased-out process.

Instead of pattern bargaining, it may be that Williams has to negotiate different deals with each of the Big Three. The contract at Ford, which did not go into bankruptcy, is already much different than at General Motors and Chrysler.

Meanwhile, pressure is coming from Mexico, which produces 18 percent of North American vehicles. That’s expected to jump to 25 percent by 2020. Employment in the Mexican auto industry since 2009 has grown 46 percent to 580,000 jobs, according to the Brookings Institution.

This is a defining moment for the UAW. Its health depends on Williams’ ability to make the union attractive to both new and current members, while negotiating within the economic reality of what has become a very global automotive industry.