King's failure with Ford workers gives his UAW some muscle

When Bob King becomes president-elect of the UAW next month, he can thank hourly workers at Ford for voting down a concession package he pushed last year that would have relinquished the union's right to strike.

King and UAW President Ron Gettelfinger tried to ram through concessions at Ford last autumn to match the automaker's labor agreement with better GM and Chrysler deals.

UAW Locals warned Gettelfinger and King that the package wouldn't fly. The rank-and-file, fed up with givebacks, anticipated a Ford profit.They were right. Workers overwhelming defeated the concessions. And Ford has put together four consecutive profitable quarters, including a $2.1 billion net profit in the first quarter.

Gary Walkowicz, a UAW bargaining committeeman at Ford's Dearborn Truck plant, said Ford workers would have given up the right to strike when the UAW locks horns with the Detroit 3 again in negotiations leading up to the current contract expiration in September, 2011. GM and Chrysler workers gave up that right. If they can't reach agreement on new contracts, their settlement will be subject to binding arbitration. "The company is making lots of profits and if we couldn't strike, we'd have nothing to force them to get back what we've given up over the last two years," Walkowicz said.

King, 63, will likely be elected the next UAW president at the union's constitutional convention next month in Detroit. Walkowicz is a delegate.

At a speech this month in Detroit, King signaled that UAW workers would be looking to recover some of the concessions made during the industry's dark days in 2009.

At Ford, at least, the wisdom of the rank-and-file last year means he'll have the strike option as an arrow in his quiver to make that happen.