New UAW President Dennis Williams puts his fist up in solidarity with union brothers and sisters during his keynote speech. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
Detroit — Newly elected United Auto Workers president Dennis Williams urged members Thursday to join the fight to “take back” the country that has been “handcuffed by extremists.”
Williams, 61, elected Wednesday to replace outgoing president Bob King, also said its time for the union to stand up and accept no more concessions in negotiations with corporations.
But during his 30-minute speech in front of more than 1,000 elected union delegates, Williams did not specifically mention eliminating the controversial two-tier wage system — one of the top reasons many delegates said they voted for the former Marine.
The new UAW president addressed the subject during a press conference later in the afternoon, reiterating a previous statement that he wants to “bridge the gap” of the two-tier wage structure.
He also announced the assignments for his three vice presidents: Jimmy Settles will oversee Ford Motor Co. and aerospace; Norwood Jewell will negotiate with Chrysler Group LLC, General Dynamics and agriculture and heavy truck companies; and Cindy Estrada will head the team that bargains with General Motors Co., parts suppliers and independent companies. Estrada, who is the first Latina UAW vice president, downplayed the fact she will negotiate with GM, which is headed by the auto industry’s first female CEO, Mary Barra.
Gary Casteel, the newly-elected secretary-treasurer, will handle the union’s finances, transnational organizing, and Mitsubishi Motors. Casteel said Thursday he will continue to live in Tennessee to continue his focus on organizing auto plants in the south, including Volkswagen AG’s Chattanooga, Tenn., facility, which earlier this year the UAW narrowly lost out on organizing.
Williams, during his speech, sent a strong message to companies — including the Detroit automakers — that he will expect them to share more of their recent profit gains with union members.
“It’s time for each and every one of us to tell our corporations no more concessions,” he said. “We’re tired of this.
“I don’t want anybody to misread what I’m saying; I want to work closely with the companies as long as it doesn’t hurt our members. I also want to tell them, I do not like confrontation, but I am not afraid of confrontation.”
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, doing the same job have a starting wage about half that amount and their top hourly pay is capped at $19.
Chrysler and Fiat SpA CEO Sergio Marchionne has said he wants to end the two-tier wage structure, and recently said he wants to begin negotiating a new contract with the UAW this month — more than a year before the current contract with the union ends. But Williams said Thursday the union isn’t quite ready to sit down at the bargaining table.
Williams expressed the need for better communication within the union, something officials tried to improve on when discussing the recent union dues hike, which passed Tuesday. Union members in August will begin paying dues equal to two-and-a-half hours of monthly pay, up from two hours.
Union officials for more than six months floated the idea of the dues increase and visited local union shops to gather the opinions of members.
“How can we be good stewards of our union if we’re not communicating and educating?” Williams asked, adding that “if we can’t talk to our members about what we’re doing, perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it.”
Williams urged members to vote in upcoming elections — including Senate and House races and the presidential race in 2016.
“This country better be careful,” he said. “If we want to keep our freedoms, you have to fight for them.
“The great equalizer in this country is our vote.”