Analysis: The Man Who Would Be (Bob) King

Yet another plan to take over the auto world

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Incoming UAW President Bob King got his term as leader of the autoworkers off to a less than encouraging start, offering a lazy analysis of the UAW's woes and a strategy that amounts to little more than wishful thinking. King understandably seeks to restore the UAW's past position as representative for the entire American auto industry, but his first target, Toyota's NUMMI facility in Fremont, Calif., makes little sense.

Up until the GM bankruptcy in 2009, NUMMI was a joint venture between GM and Toyota, with workers represented by the UAW. With GM forced to withdraw, Toyota shuttered the plant in April 2010. NUMMI is now slated to reopen as part of a new joint venture between Toyota and Tesla, a prospective maker of electric vehicles.

This is a harebrained strategy. Electric vehicles are, to put it as kindly as possible, a totally unproven technology that has yet to demonstrate any lasting appeal in the automobile market. Tesla's best chance of breaking through to the car-buying public will be to maximize quality and minimize price, a task that will only be complicated by forcing the carmaker to negotiate the collective bargaining and grievance gauntlet associated with a union plant. Tesla itself is a risky proposition; Even if the UAW restrains itself, Tesla could easily fail, and does the UAW need another association with a failed automaker?

King argues that if the UAW succeeds in organizing foreign automakers like Toyota, BMW, Nissan and Mercedes, that it can go to companies and tell them they don't need to fear competitive disadvantages, but that leaves the union in a chicken-and-egg position. What reasonable auto executive is going to volunteer to be the next to get unionized? And that aside, King ignores the fact that it's autoworkers, not executives, that have the final say on union representation, at least as long as the long-wished for card-check law remains in Congress.

The UAW got bailed out by the federal government during the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies thanks to its political sway, but that political protection is liable to be gone by the end of the year. Even with that, the union had to scramble to stanch membership losses. Growth was out of the question. The UAW remains caught in a trap that is largely of its own making, with little credibility among workers, especially those at the companies it seeks to organize and little idea how to deal with the very real but dimly understood (to its leaders at least) pressures of the marketplace. When King recognizes economic reality the UAW may be able to find its way out. Until then, one can confidently predict continued frustration at Solidarity House.

 

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