The start of United Auto Workers' national contract talks is months away, but the take on President Dennis Williams is that he's a guy who will work with the Detroit automakers.
Not because the union president is likely to be a pushover, ranking industry executives say. But because the UAW CEO understands competition better than his predecessor and he's likely to approach bargaining the way they do: as a business proposition whose results will be judged by key constituencies.
"People are watching these negotiations," one industry executive close to the process said. "If we do the same old stuff, that won't help build the union."
Put another way: Williams is no Bob King.
Where the former president spent time and member dues in vain attempts to unite workers around the globe, Williams demonstrates a sharper focus on the needs of his members and squaring those with the competitive realities facing the automakers.
Where King tended to see multinational corporations as repositories of cash to be fleeced for the union's short-term benefit, Williams recognizes that competitive employers are in the long-term interest of the union and its desperate need for growth — in the Detroit companies and, potentially, the foreign-owned operating in the United States.
Where King pledged cooperation even as he threatened to brand non-union automakers "human rights violators" if they didn't readily accede to the UAW's organizing efforts, Williams so far is less publicly bombastic and less contradictory in the messages he sends.
Where King would spend weeks traveling to meet with South Korean unionists or an international labor conference in Geneva, one of the most expensive cities on the planet, Williams is focused on the United States and is more likely to be attending a board meeting of Illinois-based Navistar Inc., where he has been a director since 2006.
Another ranking executive describes Williams as "a businessman" who entertains creative solutions and "gets it." He'd better, because the stakes are high for the union and the automakers.
This year's negotiations will be the first in eight years unencumbered by the threat of imminent financial collapse or government oversight; the first in decades where the United States, not foreign markets, is the primary profit-driver; the first in who knows how long that all sides will be working to manage prosperity, not decline.
Make no mistake: The emerging consensus in advance of talks beginning this summer is that they will not be easy. Nor is a union whose mantra is "bridge the gap" between pay rates for second-tier and legacy employees likely to drive an easy bargain.
It can't, politically speaking, despite needing to balance contradictory imperatives. Those include squaring the expectation for base-wage increases among tier-one employees with the need (at General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., especially) to achieve all-in labor costs parity with foreign-owned automakers.
They include balancing expectations for Cadillac health care with the fact that the richness of the UAW plan will be subject to a "Cadillac tax" set to be levied on the automakers by current terms of the Affordable Care Act.
And they include reckoning the drive for more dues-paying members at potentially lower tiers with a push to compensate existing members even more, through base-pay increases, richer bonuses or both. The first path improves chances for continued reinvestment in the States; the second does not, executives say.
How Williams, the union's bargaining committee and their counterparts at the auto companies balance all these variables, and more, will shape Detroit's evolving image with investors, industry analysts, dealers, employees and customers.
Bankruptcy and bailouts are receding quickly (too quickly?) in the collective rear-view mirror here, but they remain hot touchstones to critics of using taxpayer money to rescue private companies. How and what the talks produce will be markers of how Detroit is changing — or not.
Whenever companies make money, and show an ability to do it consistently, there's no shortage of interest groups devising ways to spend it. On union pay, bonuses and benefits; on stock buybacks and dividends for investors; on new vehicle programs, even acquisitions.
Understandable human nature, that, if an exercise in looking backwards. That's not much help when the union and the companies need a business plan to move forward together, competitively.
Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.