UAW primed for struggles ahead, Williams says

UAW President Dennis Williams: "This is our time."
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DETROIT -- New UAW President Dennis Williams signaled in his inaugural speech that the union’s priorities will be the 2015 contract talks with the Detroit 3 and national elections this year and in and 2016.

Williams, 61, set the stage for next year’s auto talks by declaring that the days of contract concessions are over.

“We have had enough,” he said to a rousing ovation.

Williams, a Marine veteran, said the union has been galvanized by debate this week. The most contentious issue was a 25 percent dues increase that was overwhelmingly approved by the nearly 1,100 delegates at the 36th UAW Constitutional Convention.

The increase will raise dues from two hours per month to 2.5 hours per month for auto workers.

The increase will raise $50 million annually for a UAW strike fund that has fallen from $900 million in 2006 to $630 million today. About $60 million of the drawdown over the past four years has been spent on organizing, including a stalled effort at Volkswagen AG’s Chattanooga assembly plant.

Williams said the union is primed to fight for worker rights and social and economic justice.

“This is our time,” he said at the conclusion of the half-hour address.

Williams spent the better part of the speech detailing how the line of UAW presidents before him each had to rise to daunting challenges. From the UAW’s founding by Walter Reuther to the concessions negotiated by Ron Gettelfinger in 2009 to save General Motors and Chrysler, they took measures that members didn’t initially understand.

But by listening, educating and proceeding courageously, they were willing to make hard choices, he said.

Williams steered clear of mentioning Chattanooga and other organizing drives specifically. Also notably absent from the speech was any mention of the divisive issue of two-tier wages, in which entry-level auto workers earn just more than half the pay and benefits that longtime auto workers earn.

But Williams said it was the role of leadership, including the delegates in the room, to patiently explain to members why some unpopular measures have to be taken.

During the convention, former president Bob King, who officially retires with this convention, said a strong strike fund is crucial to show the power of the union to stand up in the auto talks and to finance expensive organizing drives at Chattanooga and at a Nissan plant in Mississippi.

After the speech, the delegates were led by Williams and his new officers to a rally outside the convention hall where hospitality workers are trying to organize a hotel.

You can reach David Barkholz at dbarkholz@crain.com. -- Follow David on Twitter and


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