UAW's King, taking aim at Toyota, is hobbled by internal defeats

David Barkholz covers IT and labor for Automotive News
As new UAW President Bob King prepares a campaign to organize Toyota, he should be wary of rank-and-file rebellions in his midst.

Call it concession fatigue.

The last three UAW-endorsed concessionary contracts at Ford and two General Motors parts units have been soundly thrashed by hourly workers.

The latest rejection, at GM's Nexteer Automotive steering plant in Saginaw, Mich., last week, took place by a 3-1 margin of the nearly 2,000 UAW-represented workers there. They said no despite UAW and management warnings that the defeat might cause prospective plant buyers to drop their bids and lead GM to shutter the plant it took back from Delphi Corp. last year.

Here's where King should be concerned: Nexteer gauge repairman Dustin Meyer says if that's the best the company can do, it should go ahead and close the plant.

He said workers have heard for years that the plant would close without concessions. The first such claim came when Delphi was in bankruptcy in 2005. Shortly thereafter, workers accepted a reduction in the top production wage from $28 an hour to $16.50, he said.

This month they rejected a proposed five-year contract that would have frozen wages for three years and cut wages for new hires from $14 an hour to $12 an hour. Meyer, 22, says the proposed wage wouldn't support a family - and, more damaging, the new contract would have provided medical insurance only for the worker, not the worker's family.

He said he's not convinced new owners wouldn't demand more concessions once installed. The new contract contained no successor clause requiring new owners to accept the existing contract.

"Don't get me wrong: I love my job," Meyer said. "But if they're going to close the plant, it's better that it happens while I'm 22 than when I'm 50 or 60."

The Saginaw turndown follows a similar rejection earlier this year at GM's valve-lifter plant in Wyoming, Mich. Before that, UAW members at Ford rejected a concessionary contract brought to them by King last autumn that contained a no-strike clause. King tried to sell the concessions as necessary to provide Ford with the same pattern as better deals negotiated by GM and Chrysler in bankruptcy.

During his inaugural press conference as president this month, King tried to put the best face on the Ford rejection. The vote, he said, reflected the democratic principles of the union -- that workers had spoken.

But losing three OEM contract votes in a row is not a good way to build credibility going into an organizing campaign with Toyota that promises to be a real donnybrook.

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