UAW presidential endorsement ‘soon’ – won’t be Trump

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams says the union will “soon” endorse a presidential candidate, and it will not be Republican candidate Donald Trump.

“I’m going to ‘Make America Great,’ what does that mean?” Williams told news media Thursday in Detroit, referring to Trump’s campaign slogan. “He has avoided talking about the details. That concerns me.”

Williams, citing an August 2015 article from The Detroit News, said Trump “called his own destiny with us” by suggesting one way to stop automakers’ expansion to Mexico is by moving some production out of Michigan to lower-wage states.

The union, he said, has completed surveying its members regarding the presidential election, with union leadership “at the point now that decisions are being made” on to whether to endorse Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

Although not as influential as it once was at its peak of 1.5 million in 1979, the UAW has membership and retirees of more than 1 million, including about 412,000 active workers. It’s not unprecedented for the UAW and other to hold off on endorsements during the primary season.

Williams said about 28 percent of members who participated in the union’s surveys voted for Trump, adding he doesn’t believe that percentage has grown. He declined to disclose the percentages for other candidates.

UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada has openly supported Sanders. Williams said he is not concerned that leaders such as Estrada have supported a candidate, citing that in 2008 he was one of the only union supporters of Barack Obama.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, which was ushered in under Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, is not a factor in Williams’ endorsement decision.

“I don’t blame Hillary Clinton for that,” he said, adding she has a track record of voting against trade agreements. “Does it raise my eyebrows? Of course ... I don’t want to tag her guilt by association, and I also don’t want to minimize the economic return that Bill Clinton delivered at the time either. He made a bad mistake with NAFTA.”

The union adamantly opposes the 1994 trade agreement, which the union is dealing with the repercussions of right now, as automakers and companies invest billions in Mexico for low-income labor.

Williams reiterated in opening remarks that union leaders “did not negotiate jobs going to Mexico” as part of contentious contract negotiations last year with General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV — all of which have announced significant investments recently south of the border and are “taking advantage” of “slave labor,” he said.

“The fact is we spent a great deal of time talking about investment in the plants that we have — investments not only in current products but next-generation products,” he said. “That’s what we do: We look at job security in multiple factors.”

Part of those future production plans include a sweeping change to Fiat Chrysler’s manufacturing footprint, as it shuffles products to focus on producing pickups, sport utility vehicles and crossovers — and ditches production of its American-made Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart sedans in coming years.

During contract negotiations, Williams said union leaders informed workers at the Warren Assembly Plant that the Ram 1500 pickup was expected to be moved up the road to Sterling Heights Assembly, which produces the 200 midsize sedan.

Williams said UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell, head of union’s Chrysler Department, is in discussions with the company on how to avoid unemployment benefits running out for workers in Sterling Heights. The plant has been down nearly every week since January due to stalling sales, and faces a “less than two year” production changeover, according to Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.

“The last conversation I had regarding anything like that, that we felt comfortable that wasn’t going to happen,” he said, adding he meets regularly with Jewell.

Jodi Tinson, a Fiat Chrysler spokeswoman, confirmed the company has “had some discussions with the UAW regarding SHAP employees.” She declined to comment on the nature of those discussions.

Overall, Williams said the union has been growing consistently for five years, and it remains on track to meet financial and other targets outlined by leaders at its annual convention.

He said the UAW is “very interested” in Palo Alto, California-based electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors Inc., whose workforce is not unionized. “They’re in a very large plant, we know that plant well,” Williams said. “So they have very low volume with a lot of space, but we are watching that. That is still of interest to us.

“I think (Tesla CEO Elon) Musk is a very unique individual.”

Williams, as treasurer of the union five years ago, said he and other union officials met with Musk twice in California. He said every time he has a discussion he talks about organizing but declined to give specifics of the conversations.

“We’re not approaching any of this in an adversarial way,” he said. “When looking at this from Tesla was a startup company, we had a great conversation with Elon Musk and a couple other people ... maybe we will revisit that.”

Tesla’s 5.3 million-square-foot facility in Fremont, California, is the only U.S. assembly plant owned by an American automaker to not be represented by a union. At the end of last year, Tesla employed more than 13,000 people globally. A breakout of production workers was not available.

Tesla on Thursday declined to comment on Williams’ remarks.

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