UAW’s president legacy decided in the South image

With eight months left in his tenure, UAW President Bob King has reversed the union’s membership decline, negotiated contracts that accelerated the Detroit Three automakers’ recovery and established stronger ties with international labor organizations.

Yet he has not achieved his most important self imposed goal, of organizing an Asian or German assembly plant in the southeast U.S. King, 67, is now too old to run for a second term under the UAW’s political bylaws and will retire next June.

“Bob King has basically staked his legacy on organizing these international assembly plants,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the labor and industry group at the Center for Automotive Research. “Unless they unionize more of the automotive work force in the country, the UAW workers will become wage takers, not wage setters in this industry.”

In Tennessee, Volkswagen and its German union leaders are trying to create a European-style works council, a move that would pave the way for the UAW to represent more than 2,000 VW workers in Chattanooga.

UAW organizers have partnered with civic groups to convince Nissan workers in Tennessee and Alabama, as well as Mercedes-Benz workers in Alabama, that a union can improve their living standards and workplace safety. But no vote is in sight for those workers to decide whether they want to join the UAW.

“He has taken the union in some very different directions,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor of labor at the University of California, Berkeley. “He has tried some unprecedented tactics. His emphasis on international links … I think will define the UAW going forward.”

While UAW membership has grown modestly in recent years as the auto industry has rebounded, it is less than a third the size it was (1.5 million members) in the late 1970s.
Still, King is also is proud of the union’s successes among auto suppliers. In October, a majority of 172 workers at Faurecia Interior Systems plant in Louisville voted for UAW representation.

Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga is King’s best shot for the long-sought assembly plant victory. There, the UAW and members of the German IG Metall union are talking with the German automaker about establishing a German-style works council that would represent employees.