By Tom Krisher
DETROIT: The man who appears poised to take over leadership of the United Auto Workers later this year says car companies’ fears about the union’s demise are unfounded.
Membership has dropped from a peak of 1.5 million in 1979 to 382,000 at the end of 2012, although it’s been rising slightly since 2009. Annual dues, the union’s main income source, are down 40 percent since 2006.
Dennis Williams, now secretary-treasurer for the union, conceded that it has been selling off stocks and other assets to balance the budget for the past seven years. But he said it also has cut spending, and more cuts are coming.
Delegates to the union’s convention in June will be asked to increase dues to help with the problem, and Williams says rising membership has started to reverse the trend of declining dues.
Williams, who led the union’s successful effort to organize an Illinois Mitsubishi plant in the late 1980s, says he’s confident the UAW will someday organize another foreign-owned auto plant in the South, even though it narrowly lost an election earlier this month at a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Like other UAW officials, he blamed the loss on statements by Tennessee Republican politicians who said VW would add an SUV to the plant if it remained nonunion. Some threatened to cut off state incentives for a plant expansion if the union was approved.
Williams, who joined the union in 1977 as a welder, recently spoke with the Associated Press at his office in Detroit. Here are excerpts, edited for clarity and style:
Q: We’ve been told that Detroit automakers are scared, in light of the Tennessee vote, that the UAW’s finances are weak and it might have to merge into another union that doesn’t understand the business. Is that a valid concern?
A: It isn’t a valid concern. The UAW is very strong when you look at it both membership-wise and financially. It’s because of our history that we have strength.
Q: You still have over $1 billion in assets, but you’ve been selling them off to pay operating expenses. Can you keep that up?
A: Over the past four years, we’ve taken that number down considerably and will continue to do so. We plan on balancing our budget within this term (the next four years). I’m not concerned about that. I was concerned four years ago because we didn’t really have a long-term plan. Today we do. We’re at 400,000 members. We have a strong strike fund. So we’re stable. Anytime there’s a huge recession, you’re going to go through a period of adjustment to get your finances back in order. That’s what happened to us. We’re back on pace.
Q: Can you bring the deficit spending down even without organizing another auto plant in the South?
A: We’ve been increasing our membership in two ways. Growth in agricultural, auto and other industries. We’ve been growing by organizing, mainly in the gaming industry and the truck industry. There’s growth. And we’ve bargained growth (with Detroit automakers). We reopened a General Motors plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. We did about $20 billion in negotiations of products coming back that they had taken out of the United States.
Q: New hires with the Detroit automakers, and new recruits in casinos, are paid less than older workers at auto plants. How do you make up for the loss of higher-wage workers? Do you have to raise the wage for new hires who are paid “second-tier” wages?
A: Naturally it has to go up. When we did the second tier, we were coming out of a recession, and we tried to bring the industry up to sell vehicles at a rapid pace, and give the companies an opportunity to recover. Our goal is to bridge that gap and start from there, and the companies know that.