UAW chief condemns Flint crisis, foreign car production

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams on Friday condemned Michigan politicians for not acting more swiftly to help Flint residents amid the city’s ongoing water crisis.

Public officials, Williams said, should immediately give the city the financial resources it needs for new piping and infrastructure in homes.

“What’s going on in Flint is deplorable,” Williams told members of the news media during a roundtable discussion at the union’s Solidarity House headquarters in Detroit. “I still question why isn’t the governor and the state Legislature acting quicker than what they did, and why have they continued not to act?”

Williams’ remarks were part of a wide-ranging discussion with reporters that ranged from the 2016 presidential election and state of the union, to international trade agreements and production shifts to Mexico and China.

It was the first time he has addressed the news media since contentious contract discussions with the Detroit automakers and other companies in 2015.

Williams called the actions by public officials in Flint “criminal” but did not go as far as calling for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to resign. He said he would “let the pundits … handle that.”

“I think this legislation right here in the state of Michigan was part of the problem,” he said.

“These legislators voted to do the manager. They cannot run from that decision, and they cannot run from the fact that they made a decision to switch the water, virtually on the whole idea of saving money at the cost of the residents in Flint.”

Williams said the union and its membership have been sending support to Flint in the shape of water, donations and volunteering.

He also questioned if state officials have their heads in the right places, referring to politicians “attacking” Detroit teachers by advancing state legislation designed to crack down on mass sickouts in the Detroit Public Schools that could lead to union decertification, fines and suspensions.

The union, Williams said, is in the process of determining which Democratic presidential candidate the union will endorse. He said officials are surveying members in a variety of ways, including sample balloting on factory floors. Williams said both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would “be great candidates to be president of the United States.”

Regarding Republican candidate Donald Trump, whom Williams has spoken out against previously, he said he doesn’t feel the billionaire reality TV star “has articulated in any fashion about where he’s been and where he’s going, and that is of great concern to me.”

‘Buick En-vasion’

Williams made several comments about companies, including the Detroit automakers, that he believes are abusing trade laws and moving jobs out of the United States.

He said General Motors Co.’s plans to import the Buick Envision, which he called the “En-Vasion,” from China is an example of non-effective trade agreements that allow “employers to go to low-paying nations and manipulate the process.”

“That’s unfair to the American taxpayer, and that’s unfair to the American people, and that’s unfair to UAW members,” he said.

Williams spent a considerable amount of time discussing Detroit automakers investing and moving products to Mexico, saying the union “will be having discussions with them.”

He said he sent a message to Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne requesting time to discuss the company’s amended five-year plan, which includes ceasing production of U.S.-built sedans in the coming years to focus production on pickups, SUVs and crossovers.

“There’s no reason why we can’t manufacture cars here in the United States of America,” he said.

“The biggest problem that we have in the United States and building cars successfully is not the worker, it’s the engineering. It’s about commonality of parts and maximizing the production within our supplier chains.”

Numerous media outlets have said Ford plans to move production of the Focus compact and C-Max crossover to Mexico. Williams said the company has not informed him of that move.

Williams said the union never negotiated with the Detroit automakers about sending work to Mexico during contract negotiations last year.

2015 negotiations

Following a contentious year of contract negotiations with the Detroit automakers, Williams said the union learned a lot on how to approach collective bargaining in the future, including how to better explain tentative agreements, address questions and handle social media.

“We were not prepared for the outside forces that attacked us on social media,” Williams said.

Social media website Facebook was particularly detrimental to the union’s talks last year that included Fiat Chrysler workers overwhelmingly voting down one tentative agreement, GM skilled-trades members voting down their deal before the union pushing it through and a close ratification vote at Ford.

The UAW also reached agreements with several companies outside of the Detroit automakers in 2015, including John Deere, state of Michigan, Nexteer Automotive and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

“As a union as a whole, I think we are stronger today than we were yesterday,” he said, adding the union had to make tough decisions to better its membership in 2015, including a strike at Saginaw Township-based Nexteer. “Our job is to give them as much information and as much knowledge as we can give them to make the best decisions for their lives. But I think our union is stronger for that discussion, and stronger for that democratic process.”

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