DETROIT -- Dennis Williams was elected president of the UAW today at its 36th Constitutional Convention.
Williams, 61, takes the helm of the U.S. auto workers union for four years, replacing Bob King, 67, who officially retired at the convention. Williams and his slate of vice presidents were elected overwhelmingly by the 1,100 delegates here.
The final tally was 3215-49 delegates in favor.
Williams, who comes out of the agricultural part of the union, served the past four years as secretary-treasurer. He is a rare UAW executive who didn’t start at an automotive assembly or parts plant.
In an interview this morning as he was entering the convention floor, Williams said a contentious debate Tuesday that resulted in delegates approving a 25 percent dues increase will strengthen the union not only financially but by democratically resolving an issue that could have divided the membership.
The increase, which hikes dues from two hours per month for workers to 2.5 hours, will raise about $50 million annually to replenish a UAW strike fund that has diminished from about $900 million in 2006 to $630 million today.
“We’re now structurally prepared as best we can,” Williams said. “From a solidarity standpoint, it has unified us because of the larger conversation.”
The UAW has about 390,000 members, one-third of whom work at the Detroit 3.
Williams inherits serious challenges, including a stalled organizing drive at Volkswagen AG’s Chattanooga assembly plant and contract talks with the Detroit 3 next year.
Those negotiations will start with unresolved rank-and-file discontent over 11 years without a wage increase and a burgeoning number of entry-level workers receiving just more than half the wages and benefits of longtime workers. Nearly one-quarter of Detroit 3 auto workers are now Tier 2, including about 40 percent at Chrysler plants.
In brief comments after the election, Williams said the union is galvanized and ready to face head-on the challenges before it.
He named the 2015 contract negotiations with the Detroit 3 and important national political elections in 2014 and 2016.
"The challenges are real without a doubt," Williams said.
Earlier this week, Williams also vowed to redouble organizing efforts at VW Chattanooga, Nissan’s assembly plant in Mississippi and the Mercedes assembly plant in Alabama.
The $50 million from the dues increase will go into the strike fund and support about $15 million per year in spending for organizing those plants and others, he said. The fund had been depleted by like organizing spending during the past four years as well as about $100 million in spending during that time for union operations.
Williams has been heavily involved in the organizing drive at VW Chattanooga, which the UAW missed representing in a narrow vote earlier this year. The union blamed the loss on outside interference by politicians and anti-union groups that poured $2 million into the campaign in the weeks leading up to the election.
A Marine veteran, Williams joined the UAW in 1977 as a salvage welder at a J.I. Case factory represented by UAW Local 806. While moving up the ranks as an officer of UAW Region 4 representing the breadbasket states of Iowa, Nebraska and others, Williams helped to rebuild strained relations with heavy-equipment maker Navistar as well as organize the Tulsa Bus Plant in Oklahoma, according to his biography on the UAW Web site.
Officers elected today to Williams’ cabinet were Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel and Vice Presidents Cindy Estrada, Norwood Jewell and Jimmy Settles.