DETROIT -- The hissing you hear today is the sound of air leaking from Bob King's dream to organize the transplant automakers.
Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne punctured it at 10 p.m. Detroit time last night in a letter he sent to the UAW president, questioning whether King and the UAW had really changed.
To summarize, Marchionne criticized King for no-showing him Wednesday to complete a new four-year labor agreement that had been largely done except for a couple of outstanding economic issues.
The dress-down is almost painful to read. It strikes at the heart of the image that King has tried to portray to the transplants: that the "UAW of the 21st century" has eschewed its adversarial ways and can be seen as a trusted partner to improve profits and operations.
"And we even agreed that were we still around in 2011, we would not go back to the old adversarial and confrontational ways of the past to resolve unsettled matters: that we would have someone else arbitrate our differences," Marchionne wrote King.
"Until now, there have been encouraging signs of a new paradigm governing the relationship between us."
King has said the UAW's survival rests on its ability to organize the transplants in right-to-work states, including at least one automaker this year.
The parent-to-child tone of the letter is almost as damaging as the points themselves.
"I flew back from the Frankfurt Motor Show late last night to be here today to finalize the dialogue that has been started by our teams but that required your presence and mine to conclude. You, unfortunately, could not be here, I am told, due to competing engagements." King reportedly was tied up with negotiations at General Motors.
The failure to get a new contract on time, Marchionne went on, has left Chrysler's 26,000 hourly employees with avoidable uncertainty about their futures. And it called into question more than $4 billion in investment that Chrysler has made in the United States on the promise that it would get a competitive contract with the UAW.
Chrysler later agreed to extend talks with the UAW for another week while Marchionne attends to business out of town. The UAW declined to comment.
"We did not manage to agree to a set of simple conditions that would have given certainty and peace of mind to the lives of more than 110,000 actives and retirees," he said.
Marchionne even alludes to King's frequent travels abroad in support of other labor and social causes as a distraction to the real business at hand -- taking care of worker business.
"I know that we are the smallest of the three automakers here in Detroit, but that does not make us less relevant. Our people are no less relevant," Marchionne wrote.
"And they are certainly more relevant than some of the larger issues, including those on the international front, that are close to your heart but that do not impact on the quality of the lives of our people."
Hiss. The one thing that King needed from the Detroit 3 negotiations was smooth, professional resolution so he could turn his attention to transplant organizing.
Instead, Marchionne's pointed pen has painted King in the worst possible light for a union leader: as unreliable.