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Newly Elected UAW President Bob King on Reversing the Erosion of Workers’ Rights, Benefits and the Role of Social and Environmental Justice in Union Organizing

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One of the most critical issues facing the Detroit region is the future of the auto industry. As the home of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, Detroit was once the manufacturing capital of the world, but today the city and car industry are at a crossroads. We speak to Bob King, the newly elected president of the United Auto Workers. The UAW represents about 355,000 workers, down from 1.5 million thirty years ago. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Detroit, Michigan, where thousands of activists and organizers are gathering for the US Social Forum. The theme of this week’s conference is “Another World Is Possible, Another US Is Necessary, Another Detroit Is Happening!”

One of the most critical issues facing the Detroit region is the future of the auto industry. As the home of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, Detroit was once the manufacturing capital of the world, but today the city and car industry is at a crossroads.

We’re joined now by Bob King, the newly elected president of the United Auto Workers. He was elected last week to replace Ron Gettelfinger, who retired after two terms. The UAW represents about 355,000 workers, down from one-and-a-half million thirty years ago. In his inaugural speech last week, Bob King called for protests against Toyota and other foreign auto companies that operate non-unionized plants in the United States. Bob King has worked in the auto industry since 1970, when he joined Ford. He’s an electrician and a lawyer by training.

Bob King, welcome to Democracy Now!

BOB KING: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to be with you in your city.

BOB KING: It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the state of the union movement. Talk about the state of the auto industry in this country.

BOB KING: Well, I’m very excited that Ford and GM and Chrysler, I think, are on their way back. A lot of our members’ and a lot of our retirees’ future is tied into these companies being viable, and the fact that they’re gaining strength and gaining market share and gaining sales is really important. A problem, though, is that so much of the industry is not organized. And it’s not even so much that it’s not organized; it’s that so many workers in the industry in the US today are not paid fair wages and benefits. These corporations are making billions of dollars. They have for a number of years. And they want to keep pushing workers’ wages down lower and lower. Where at one point everybody in the industry made a good middle-class wage and we built the middle class off the wages in the auto industry, today there’s a great growing disparity of pay amongst workers in the industry. And why it’s so important that we refocus on organizing is to make sure that all workers in the industry get a decent pay and have a decent standard of living.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob King, your news-making call last week for the right to organize US plants that are operated by companies like Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai?

BOB KING: What we want is companies to recognize the workers’ First Amendment rights. Workers should have a right of free speech. They should have a right of association without being intimidated — in some cases, terrorized — by the boss, without having their jobs threatened or their plants threatened to close. It’s outrageous the way that some employers try to deny workers their rights to organize and their rights — their First Amendment rights, really.

AMY GOODMAN: So how are you planning to organize them?

BOB KING: We’re going to reach out to a much broader base in America and make sure that a far greater number of people are aware of the unfair treatment of workers. We want to remind people that the middle class was built by manufacturing and good wages in manufacturing, and that helped teachers and nurses and doctors and so many other people in society get good wages, because we fought for them and won them in the auto industry. And we think that American consumers and Americans do really care about democracy and do care about a middle class. So we’re going to point out where the injustices and inequities are and ask for a broad coalition of conscience to come together to demand that workers are treated fairly. And what’s really exciting is really this is a global movement now, with what’s going on in Mexico at JCI, in Puebla, what’s going on in China. Workers have a right to have a voice and a right to a decent standard of living.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about the state of the union movement. Under Ron Gettelfinger — well, he took power in 2002 —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- 575,000 members. Over this period, over this eight years, it’s dropped to 355 — 355,000. Thirty years ago, it was one-and-a-half million. More than a quarter of the UAW’s members, 355,000 members, have no connection to autos or manufacturing. Talk about that.

BOB KING: Well, a number of years ago, we started organizing wherever workers wanted a union and came to the UAW. If we thought we could help them get fair wages and benefits, more dignity in the job, more voice in the job, then we would help them organize. And so, we’ve done that. We’ve done that in higher education. We’ve done it in gaming. We’ve done it in hospitals. We’ve done it in a number of different areas.

AMY GOODMAN: You were particularly a pioneer in this, pushing for, reaching out beyond the auto industry.

BOB KING: In our local union, back when I was local union president, we did that with a number of healthcare workers, because we had the power to help them get good contracts, because we were a strong local union. And so, it worked to their benefit and to our benefit, made us — it’s made us a stronger union.

AMY GOODMAN: But you’re down to 355 from —-

BOB KING: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —- well, thirty years ago, 1.5 million. So, how do you build from there?

BOB KING: Well, we build from there by really making organizing and making — defending workers’ rights to organize is the way I think you rebuild the union. And then I think also that fighting for — being very clear that we’re not just about our membership. We understand that the best way to protect our membership is to make sure everybody in society has a decent wage and standard of living. When the UAW is on the rise and our wages and benefits are on the rise — public employees is a great example. We helped in the early organizing days of AFSCME, the UAW line organizers. Public employes all over this country now get wages comparable to what we had in manufacturing. As manufacturing has fallen, you watch state after state, city after city, county after county, they’re attacking workers, government workers, public employees, pensions and their healthcare and their wages, just like they’re attacking manufacturing. We have to — all workers and all middle class has to understand we’re tied together. We have to help one another. We have to set a standard for everybody in society.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read a quote from Labor Notes.


AMY GOODMAN: A critical piece, both laudatory of you and also critical, that was written by Al Benchich. He wrote, “King says we are 'partners' with the corporations. But US and multinational corporations intend to bury us. Who needs a union to cut jobs and wages? Worse yet, Brother King tried to sell concessions to Ford workers last October, even though Ford was not in bankruptcy and declared a $2 billion profit shortly after workers said 'no.'” Your response, Bob King?

BOB KING: Number one, we owe it to the consumers to make the best product at the best price. So the UAW has a vested interest in being partners with the corporation and making sure that the qualities that we — the services or the products that we produce are the highest possible quality. We also have a vested interest in making sure our productivity is as high as possible, so that we grow our membership and that we give long-term job security for our members. If we don’t stay competitive globally, we won’t do that. So that’s where you partner with the companies. You also have a responsibility to make sure that workers get their fair share of whatever gains the company makes. And the union has done that well over a number of years. So that’s — it’s a complicated relationship, but I think there are areas that you partner, really out of loyalty to the consumer more than the company, but it’s to provide the best product. And then, so that would be my comment in terms of why I think partnerships are important.

We want companies to know two things. One, if you work with our membership, you respect our membership, you give them a voice in the workplace and the decisions, we’re going to help you make the best quality product, the best price. If you’re unfair to workers, you’ve got a — it’s going to cost you a lot of money to not treat workers fairly. We will have very aggressive strategic campaigns where we go after the companies that will not respect workers’ rights to organize, will not give workers a fair wage, will not give workers a real voice in the system. Then the UAW will be that company’s worst problem. So companies have a choice. The best business decision is to work with our membership, and that’s what we’re hoping they’ll do.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob King, how much have UAW workers given up?

BOB KING: I would say our average member gave up, just from '07 to ’09, $7,000 to$30,000 a year, a tremendous amount.

AMY GOODMAN: The average worker?

BOB KING: The average worker.

AMY GOODMAN: And benefits?

BOB KING: That's everything combined — wages, loss of overtime, mandatory vacations versus taking pay in lieu. A lot of our skilled trade workers would have preferred to take pay in lieu. So we did a number of things to help the company survive. That’s why we were so outraged when they restored some of the salary benefits without offering the same to hourly. In UAW Ford, we filed a grievance. We won part of that grievance already. We got tuition refund, tuition program back for our membership. And we’re working on the other pieces of it.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this two-tier system, where now new hires make about $14 an hour, about half what the production workers make?

BOB KING: Not a good situation. What we are faced with is, because of our lack of success in organizing the transplants, all the transplant operations of the US have 1,500 — 1,000 to 2,000, really — temporary workers, that never grow into full wages under the system. They can get hired at some point, but you can go down to Georgetown, Kentucky, and you’ll find temporary workers have been there six, seven, eight, ten years in this temporary status. So, it was to get a blended rate that was competitive with our non-union competition here in the US. And at least in the UAW system, every member that comes in there has got a career path that they can get up to the full wages and benefits.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you fight, as president of the UAW, against the two-tier system?

BOB KING: Well, “against” is the wrong word. I mean, I was part of agreeing to it because I thought it not desirable, but necessary to do. Will we fight for those workers to be moved up to full wages? Over a period of time, we will do that, depending on what the financial situation of the company is. But it’s also helped us to bring — in Ford, we’ve brought, so far, about 1,800 — we’ll have about 3,000 jobs by the end of this contract, which is the size of a large assembly plant, that we brought back in-house. And these are workers that would have been in non-union, low-wage facilities outside of Ford that are now working for Ford and now have a career path to get to the full master agreement wages and benefits. So that was an unexpected benefit, actually, of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob King, you have an unusual history, as you rose to, well, now the presidency of the UAW.

BOB KING: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about where you come from and the plants you worked in, the fact that you’re an electrician and a lawyer, and the kind of political organizing you’ve been doing, which is new in a lot of unions.

BOB KING: Well, you know, I came out of the Army, and I needed to work.

AMY GOODMAN: You were in Korea?

BOB KING: It was during Vietnam. And I was in Korea, but it was during the Vietnam struggle. And so, I came out of the Army. I needed a job. So I went to work in a Ford plant. I had worked in college — during the summers I had worked in a Chevy plant, and I worked in a Dodge plant. So when I came out of the Army, I wanted some work. I knew that work, so I went in. I was really lucky. I ended up in a parts depot, which is comparably a lot easier than assembly line. And I was planning to go to law school. So I started law school.

And then my co-workers were taking this apprenticeship test. They said, “Come out and take the test with us.” So I went and took it. I would have failed it, if it hadn’t been for them. They told me all these — I’m not a — at that point I wasn’t a good mechanic, so I didn’t know the mechanical answers. But they told me the kind of stuff, so I passed it. Then it gave me the opportunity to go into this famous Rouge complex. So I went in there, and I really enjoyed it. And I went through the apprenticeship and became an electrician apprentice and then got elected to a number of positions by my co-workers.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as you rose in the ranks, you were also doing a lot of political organizing. For example, Salvador in the '80s.

BOB KING: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: It's interesting. Yesterday we had the Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone on.


AMY GOODMAN: You know, he did his film Salvador.

BOB KING: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: But talk about Salvador and why you brought your union activism to it.

BOB KING: Well, I think because of my training, from my parents and grade school and high school, I mean, I’ve always —-

AMY GOODMAN: You’re Catholic?

BOB KING: Yeah, I was raised Catholic. I’m Episcopal now, actually. But I’ve always had this deep belief that the value in life comes from what you do for others. When I was at Holy Cross, I had existential philosophy, and my French teacher had us read Camus and Sartre and other existentialists, and I had an uncle who was a Jesuit that I used to have a lot of conversations with. And so, really, what I -— I’m driven. I have a lot of passion about social justice that I think came from my upbringing and from my spiritual beliefs. So I’ve always been active in whatever struggles for human rights. If there’s an injustice out there, I think we all have a responsibility, especially those of us that are so blessed to live in America and have freedom of speech and freedom of organization. We have a responsibility to those who are less fortunate than us, then to reach out and to help them. And it really is in our own self-interest long term. The more just we make the world, the more justice is protected for everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: Salvador, the particular struggle there, why this was important to you? And also the fact that, for so many years, you’ve gone to Fort Benning, Georgia, to stand with those who are opposing the School of the Americas?

BOB KING: Yeah, I have a really good friend who was actually chairperson of one of our small units in the region when I was there, and she was arrested and spent six months in jail. And she came to me right before she went to jail and said, “Will you go down and represent me, because I won’t be able to be there?” And so, I did that. And it was just a — it was a very moving experience. I feel like every time I go down there, I’m renewed spiritually, because the people that are there that are demonstrating, started by Father Roy Bourgeois, they have a deep, deep passion for justice.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain why you want the School of the Americas closed?

BOB KING: What it is is they go out and they train — they train soldiers to destroy any kind of community organizations, unions. Anything that, in Central America, that is there to give power to common people, the military is out trying to destroy and maintain dictatorships. I think it’s so unbelievable that our tax dollars are spent to train soldiers to take democracy away from others in the world. And so, that’s why I feel so strongly about it.

AMY GOODMAN: As president of the UAW, will you be there at Fort Benning?

BOB KING: I will be there. Yeah, I’ll always be there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me play for you a clip of Grace Lee Boggs last night.


AMY GOODMAN: We just played an interview with her, but we asked her to, well, tell us if she had any questions for you, for Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers. This is what she said.

    GRACE LEE BOGGS: He needs to understand how much the world has changed, how much we are now not producing things, but we’re producing relations, how much the community has become as important as the plant, how much production now takes place outside the walls of the factory, and how we are at the stage in the development of humankind where our relationships with one another are the most important thing, and how we create community. And, you know, when you grow up — the labor movement, when it emerged, was when the working class was expanding. And now it’s shrinking. And how do you deal with that? And his organizers have trouble dealing with that. How do you really reach out to the community? How do you bridge that gulf?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Grace Lee Boggs, the legendary organizer, philosopher. Bob King, how do you bridge that gulf?

BOB KING: Grace is an inspiration. I think you do it by being very clear. Our mission is social justice. The mission of the UAW, if you read our preamble, our constitution, it’s social justice. And it’s having the understanding that we have the resources that we have to share, to fight for, to be part of a much broader struggle, as Grace talks about, the community, both workers inside our facilities and outside, inside the UAW and outside. The only way we can have social justice for our membership is to fight for social justice for everybody in society.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about green jobs. The UAW has opposed the CAFE standards in California. And the overall joining of the auto industry and the unions really to fight more fuel-efficient standards over the years — it’s changing now, but where do you stand on this? Why fight CAFE in California?

BOB KING: We have to be for the environment. We have to be for green jobs. We’ve got to push companies to move to electrification, to move to hydrogen. We’ve got Stan Ovshinsky. He’s right here in Michigan, who’s this great inventor who’s got, you know, a way to absorb hydrogen in a much safer way. We’ve got to really push the envelope to get environmental vehicles out there.

AMY GOODMAN: How are you going to do that?

BOB KING: Just using the power of our relationships, the power of our bargaining, because, again, that’s about — you’ve got to think long-term future of your membership. We need to be part of building the cars of the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that it’s been a mistake in the past not to be a leader in this area?

BOB KING: Well, I would argue that Walter Reuther in the early days was, that the one common standard —-

AMY GOODMAN: The first UAW president?

BOB KING: Yes, yes. President Gettelfinger worked with the Obama administration to come up with a standard. We didn’t want each individual state to have a different standard. We felt that there should be more aggressive standards, but they should be national. And so, we played a role in making that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: But what about California? It is more stringent than the national standard. But we’re at a point in the earth now with global warming, where why not support these leaders in a way that the unions haven’t in the past?

BOB KING: Well, I think what we will be -— what I would — the California standards need to be done nationally, if we’re going to do them. I mean, what we — our biggest concern was having different standards in every state. Having more aggressive standards, we’re in favor of, but doing it on a national basis rather than an individual state basis was a key concern of ours.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Employee Free Choice Act?

BOB KING: Well, it is about our First Amendment rights, right? I mean, there has to be — the current system is broken. Workers don’t have a free right to organize, to decide whether they want to join unions or not. I think workers should have that decision. If they were given a free choice and they decide that they don’t want to, fine. But what is not right is to use the economic power of the employer and the power of intimidation to stop workers from organizing when they want to organize.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bob King, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

BOB KING: Thank you very much. Great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Best of luck as president of the United Auto Workers. And while it’s great to be here in Detroit and very interesting to see the UAW intimately involved with this US Social Forum that’s taking place here in Detroit, with, well, what’s believed to be 10,000 activists from around the country and around the world gathering here, we’re going to take a tour of Detroit after this break.

BOB KING: Thank you. Thanks a lot.

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