Ernest Lofton attended his first union meeting in 1954 and got "bit by the union bug," as he puts it. It was a love affair that lasted until he retired in 1998. Most of his career was spent in association with Ford Motor Co.
After being hired at Ford's Dearborn Iron Foundry in 1950, he joined UAW Local 600. He rose to become the first vice president of Local 600, got tapped for the UAW International executive board in 1983, and was the first black to direct the UAW's National Ford Department when he became a UAW vice president in 1989.
Lofton, 71, reminisced with Kathy Jackson.
What makes Ford Motor Co. special?
The way they deal with workers. In 1979, the relationship was tenuous at best. Ken Bannon was head of the UAW Ford Department at the time. Bannon and Ford decided the relationship had to improve. And to Ford's credit, they brought in Pete Pestillo as vice president of labor relations. The relationship with workers started improving at that time, and I think it's still improving. That separates Ford from the other manufacturers.
What was the most memorable event at Ford in which you played a part?
It was in 1993, when I led the contract talks for the Big 3. Ford was the lead company, and I was the first African American to lead the talks. What I tried to do was get a six-year agreement. We came real close, but the company didn't want to do it. It just made sense to get job security for six years instead of three, and the company would know its costs for a six-year period.
We improved and added additional programs to upgrade quality and health and safety. Jack Hall was the top Ford negotiator.
What is the most significant benefit that the union gained for its members?
Health care. When I started, there was no paid Blue-Cross/Blue Shield; no John Hancock insurance or anything like that.
Is the union becoming irrelevant? Why can't it organize the imports?
I don't think it will ever be irrelevant. Many of these companies are anti-union, and I think some companies are hiring people to dissuade the workers from being in unions. But in the end, we'll get them.
Did you have specific challenges as a black man working in the auto industry and in the union?
Sure I did. When I got hired, I knew I was going to the foundry, which was one of the least desirable jobs.
Blacks had to walk out of the UAW convention in the late '50s because the UAW said it did not have a qualified black to serve as an officer. The UAW said, "We have to find a qualified black."
But the union has helped me in my day-to-day life. I have been able to travel and to help people. My mom always said: "Without a struggle, you don't succeed."
What was your most disappointing contract year?
During the strike of '67. I was president (of the specialty Foundry Unit) of Local 600 at the time, and we had thousands of members. We struck for 67 days, and I just knew we'd have a big group to turn out for the ratification vote, but we only got about 200. We struck for 67 days! I was shocked that so few turned out to vote (on the contract that ended the strike).
What can Ford do to get through these tough times?
They need to take a look at what they do best - make quality vehicles - and they need to continue good communication between the work force and the company. The union is not out to destroy a company but to help it build. Without a company, there are no jobs.