King seeks unity as UAW tries to organize transplants, preps for Detroit 3 talks

Retiring UAW President Bob King, pictured this morning: "I'm looking for great, open discussion and debate." Photo credit: DAVID BARKHOLZ

DETROIT -- UAW President Bob King, who retires this week, wants to build unity at the union as it continues efforts to organize transplants in the South and prepares for collective bargaining with the Detroit 3 next year.

He spoke on the sidelines of the UAW Constitutional Convention that kicks off this morning here.

The UAW is trying to organize Volkswagen AG’s Chattanooga assembly plant and other transplant operations in the South, despite losing a narrow vote in February to organize the VW plant.

A possible dues increase for members is on the table to defray expenses and to rebuild a strike fund that has dropped from more than $900 million less than a decade ago to about $630 million today.

And collective bargaining with the Detroit 3 begins in earnest early next year. Wage increases and a two-tier pay scale for workers are bound to be contentious issues.

“I’m looking for great, open discussion and debate,” King said. “And I’m looking for a unified UAW to come out and fight for the best for our members.”

King, 67, will retire this week when he is formally replaced by a newly elected president. That is expected to be Dennis Williams, the union’s secretary-treasurer. King declined to discuss specifically the organizing drives or other issues, saying that they will be aired at the convention.

UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles said he expects Williams to carry on where King leaves off.

Interviewed before the convention, Settles said Williams was heavily involved in the organizing drive at VW Chattanooga and elsewhere.

And Settles, who is the chief UAW negotiator at Ford Motor Co., said Williams shares King's enthusiasm for connecting with other international labor unions to promote organizing and social causes worldwide.

"He (Williams) has worked very closely with Bob," Settles said."I'm looking for more of the same."

Unfinished business

King leaves with a lot of unfinished business. When he was elected president four years ago, he promised to organize at least one of the transplant factories within a year of taking the post. The closest he came was at VW this year.

But despite cooperation from VW -- the automaker allowed organizing meetings inside the plant -- the UAW narrowly lost an election that would have made the union the collective-bargaining agent for workers and the representative on a plant works council. VW is also still trying to find a way to launch the works council.

King’s organizing drive of VW and other plants in the South, including Kia and Nissan, has cost the union tens of millions of dollars.

King said numerous times during his presidency that organizing the transplants was crucial to the UAW, and, more importantly, for the ability of the union to negotiate better wages and benefits for its Detroit 3 members.

Dues increase

The 1,100 delegates expected to attend the convention also are expected to be asked to give their approval to a dues increase, the first in decades. The union is expected to ask for another half-hour of wages per month to go for dues along with the two hours per month that do now.

On the plus side, the rebound of the auto industry has created more than 10,000 jobs at the Detroit 3 on King’s watch. But those hires receive pay and benefits that are slightly more than half as much as longtime workers.

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has made no secret of his disdain for the two-tier pay scale. He says it is bad for morale because workers doing the same job are paid different wages.

You can reach David Barkholz at -- Follow David on Twitter: @barkholzatan

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