UAW was unprepared for social media influence on talks, Williams says

Union still wrapping up local contracts at GM Lordstown plant, elsewhere

Williams: The UAW needs to do a better job of communicating with its members during negotiations.

UPDATED: 2/5/16 4:11 pm ET - adds message to Marchionne

DETROIT -- UAW President Dennis Williams said the union took away several lessons from its rocky 2015 negotiations with Detroit automakers -- chief among them being the influence of social media on members.

“We were not prepared for the outside forces that attacked us on social media,” Williams said today at a roundtable with reporters at the union’s Detroit headquarters.

The UAW ratified new labor contracts with General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler, along with manufacturers including John Deere and Nexteer, last year following contentious rounds of negotiations. He said the contracts were ultimately “balanced” and that the union is stronger than it was before.

“The end result … demonstrated probably more than any time that I can remember how our democratic process really worked,” Williams said. “At times, it appeared that was overly adversarial. But the fact of the matter is the UAW members enjoy the fact that they do have a voice and do have the opportunity to determine for themselves whether they agree or don’t agree with the collective bargaining agreement.”

He said the UAW needs to do a better job of communicating with its members during negotiations, pointing to his role in the rollout of the health care co-op plan as an example.

“Did I take upon the amount of time necessary to inform and educate the leadership and membership about what we were trying to achieve in the co-op? We didn’t, so I own that,” he said.

The UAW must also approve local contracts, which set rules and policies at individual plants, with the automakers. Williams said UAW leaders are working closely with chapters to pass them.

“Every local union has their own autonomy, so we’ll keep working through that process,” he said.

Those local contracts include those at General Motors’ complex in Lordstown, Ohio, where workers sought authorization to strike if problems in local negotiations persisted. Locals 1112 and 1714, which represent Lordstown workers, have reached agreements with GM and will vote on them later this month.

Williams said he was unsure of how many local contracts remained to be ratified.

Message to Marchionne

Meanwhile, Williams said he has asked FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne for a meeting to discuss the company's plan to stop making two low-profit car models. He said he has not yet heard back from the Fiat Chrysler chief.

Marchionne last week said that the compact Dodge Dart and the midsize Chrysler 200 would "run their course" of current production and then the company would stop making them. Marchionne said he is looking for a partner so production can be outsourced, but industry analysts have said that it will be hard to find a partner to make cars that are not highly profitable.

Marchionne said Fiat Chrysler wants to "defocus the passenger car market" in favor of more production of profitable and in-demand pickup trucks and utility vehicles.

Williams, whose term runs through mid-2018, wants to ensure that UAW jobs are secure. Marchionne said last month that the shift in the U.S. market toward making larger vehicles and away from passenger cars, will not mean fewer U.S. plant jobs, but he believes it is permanent. 

Williams said he wants to talk with Marchionne about several options, including opening another plant in the United States that would be flexible enough to make several types of vehicles.

‘Vigorous discussions’

He said he will be in “vigorous discussions” with the Detroit automakers to discuss moving production back to the U.S., pointing to the companies’ profit margins and increases in worker productivity as reasons why doing so would make sense.

“They are making huge amount of profits,” Williams said. “There is no reason mathematically to go ahead and run to countries like Mexico, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.”

Williams said the automakers have an obligation to keep jobs in the U.S., especially following the 2008 and 2009 federal bailouts of GM and Chrysler.

“Companies ought to be just as loyal to the United States of America as the taxpayer is to them,” he said.

Williams said the UAW also will work in Mexico with local leaders to boost labor rights in the country.

“The Mexican auto worker needs representation,” Williams said. “We all know what a corrupt system they have in their labor system.”

Most U.S. car production is set to shift to Mexico under the new contracts with the Detroit Three, leaving the U.S. with production of trucks, crossovers and SUVs.

While Williams said there should be more car production in the U.S., he said he is not concerned about hot-selling trucks and SUVs potentially falling out of favor in the future should gas prices spike. He said automakers have been “very successful” in raising gas mileage on trucks and SUVs, potentially negating the negative impact of higher gas prices.

Trade deal

Williams also blasted the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which President Barack Obama signed this week but is still subject to approval by Congress and other legislatures globally.

He said the TPP and other trade deals like the U.S.-Korean trade agreement hurt American workers and consumers by shifting jobs and production overseas. The UAW previously backed the passage of the Korean trade deal, but Williams said the union would not back it today.

Williams said he is concerned about U.S. companies and brands importing vehicles from other markets, pointing to GM’s plan to import the China-made Buick Envision into the U.S.

“We call it the Invasion,” Williams said. “That’s a good example of how trade agreements are not effective in this country.”

Political moves

Williams also touched on politics and government, saying the UAW will endorse a presidential candidate later this year after surveying members. He praised Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, saying they “would be great candidates to be president.”

He also urged Michigan state lawmakers to act on the water crisis in Flint, Mich., GM’s birthplace, where lead levels in tap water were found to be well above what is considered safe to consume.

Williams called the inaction of public officials leading up to the crisis “criminal,” but stopped short of calling for the resignation of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder as some activists and others have.

Reuters contributed to this report.

You can reach John Irwin at -- Follow John on Twitter: @JohnDIrwin

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