2014 UAW Convention: Bob King's swan song

By Rod Meloni - Reporter, CFP ®

DETROIT - Bob King's four years as UAW president are drawing to a close.

On Monday, he thanked the union and its leadership for its faith in him and left off where he started. He believes the UAW needs to continue its push to become a more international union. He says it starts with organizing foreign "transplant" plants and encourages continued fighting on both of those fronts.

King, who has a talent for saying things you would not expect to hear from similar executive officers, told his membership previously "the UAW will not survive if it does not organize the transplant auto plants."

King travelled far and wide with this message during his tenure. In fact, he went as far away as Brazil. The only problem for him and the union is he failed to organize any transplant plants in his four years in office. The most notable of many failures of this kind happened only a few months ago in Chattanooga, Tenn. at a Volkswagen plant. King blames the Republican governor and Republican Senator Bob Corker for threatening workers with no new future work if they went union.

Well, that's the union side. Many southern autoworkers for years have been rebuffing the UAW for, as they will happily tell you, not adding much value to their work proposition with their employers. Another inconvenient fact the UAW doesn't like to discuss at an event like its national convention is analysts here in Detroit said at the time that the election was set up as a slam dunk for Bob King. Volkswagen management wanted the UAW in, wanted to replicate the so-called "workers councils" it uses in Germany. But, American law prevents such entities, instead opting for elections. It was close, but King's forces that spent millions of dollars on that drive couldn't punch it into the end zone.

Those same analysts will tell you it was a devastating defeat for Bob King and the UAW. The most he can trumpet in this regard is getting lesser paying professions like college administrators and nurses to join the UAW, more than 20,000 of them in total. It may help the union, but only to a point.

Bob King was never conventional. He cared about his membership deeply. He cares about people deeply as well. People who know him will tell you he will go out to an expensive dinner somewhere like in Greektown and at the end will pull together perfectly good food that would otherwise be thrown away and bring it to the homeless. He brought that sensibility to running the union, too. But the flip side to that is the fact that the union under King's leadership spent some $400 million of its precious strike fund. It seemed to make sense considering during the bankruptcy the domestic three automakers ended up with no-strike clauses in the national contract.

Now, though, the union is feeling cash strapped. As his swan song, King is asking membership to pay higher dues. This comes at a time when the second -- or lower -- tier wage system is paying members less than $20 an hour. While the new, higher dues are likely to pass at the convention, rest assured there are a lot of members who are not at all happy to pay more for what some feel are less.

Tonight there was a protest sign on the ground outside Cobo Center. It said "Higher Dues? Raise Wages!" Over the past four years UAW wages haven't grown appreciably. The most that can be said about autoworker fortunes is the only place where wage growth has happened is with improved bonus checks because the traditional domestic three car companies are making money again, post-bankruptcy.

The union's future fortunes will soon be in the hands of Dennis Williams, a former Marine who came up through the union's farm implements division and not the traditional route through the auto division. It's a real departure in a couple of respects. Williams is currently the secretary-treasurer, most other presidents have come out of the vice president ranks.

We won't know until Wednesday whether Williams will win, although these things are usually planned out well in advance. We haven't heard him say what he intends to do as president. But the Union membership knows it is at a crossroads and will need far better success in the future to prevent Bob King's pronouncement of "no transplants, no union" from coming to pass.

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