One On One With The UAW

October 13, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — It’s widely believed that no organization has more to lose from the ongoing turmoil of domestic automakers and their supply chain than the United Automobile Workers.

Formally known as the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, the UAW is intricately tied to many of the state’s most dire economic stories. Many would argue it is one of the reasons companies such as Electrolux, Delphi Corp., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. have struggled.

The UAW is facing an era of dramatic change. With 550,000 members, it is about one-third the size it was in the late 1970s. Cutbacks at the Big 3 and their suppliers stand to further decimate those ranks.

While still one of the nation’s most visible labor organizations, the UAW is dwarfed in size by the 1.5-million-member Service Employees International Union. In the UAW itself, the autoworker is fast becoming a minority as the union continues to organize in other sectors.

Grand Rapids is the headquarters of UAW Region 1D, the union’s governing body for the more than 42,000 active members of West, Central and Northern Michigan. Don Oetman, a 41-year veteran of organized labor, was elected director of the region for a second four-year term in June. During a recent interview, he shared his thoughts on the state of the UAW in West Michigan

BJ: In the automotive industry in general, it seems there is no news but bad news. Is this also true for the UAW?

Oetman: There have certainly been better times, but it’s not all doom and gloom like the papers try to portray. Yeah, we’ve got some problems in the auto industry as a whole, not just in this region and not just in Michigan; it’s all over the United States

In our region — which covers 62 of the 83 counties, three-quarters of the state — we see some positive signs. There are several places that are expanding — not enough to make up for some of the losses — but it certainly helps.

We just had an election and won at a company in Grand Haven, and we’ve had several in the last six months in the Grand Rapids area. We’re diversifying more and more.

Diversification seems to be a common goal in the auto industry. Where is it taking the union?

We’ve been looking hard at technical office professional groups and have organized a number of them over the years. … We have several hospitals in the region, one that is organized and two others that we are working on.

Is it harder to organize workplaces today?

In almost every situation — especially in the manufacturing arena, like this one in Grand Haven — we wind up with some kind of protest. Sometimes it goes to court; sometimes it gets settled short of that.

With the thousands of workers accepting buyout deals from Delphi and GM, it seems that much of the local union leadership must now be retired.

Leadership is changing substantially in most of the General Motors and Delphi situations, probably a little more with Delphi than GM. There is a tremendous amount of change in membership and also in leadership. In fact, we have a number of locals putting on new member orientation programs.

Has that made the locals weaker?

I don’t believe that.

We have a tremendous amount of leadership. What you hear about normally are the president and vice president, the bargaining committee. But we have tons of standing committees, 20 or more sometimes.

They’re in a new leadership role, but they still have had a fair amount of day-to-day leadership under their belt. I don’t think it will weaken our position; it’s just a change. There is some training involved, but I don’t believe it will change our position at the bargaining table.

What are the union’s top priorities today?

Trade policies in this country are just atrocious — NAFTA, CAFTA, the Thailand Free Trade Agreement they keep messing around with. That’s the biggest issue we’re dealing with on a regular basis. And trade policies aren’t just for autoworkers; there are certainly a lot of other people that work in the parts industry that aren’t part of the UAW. When you can get parts produced in other countries at a dollar or two or more less per hour, that affects everyone.

The other issue is health care. This country needs some kind of single-payer health care system. It’s just a must. I was involved with Electrolux. I met with its CEO at the Boston airport, rented a conference room there, with the mayor of Greenville and the city manager and the bargaining chair of the local union. We met with the CEO — Hans was his name — and they ended up closing that facility.

During the meeting, several times Hans said, “I don’t know what is the matter with the United States. We don’t have the health care issues that you do because we have a national health system. Yes, we pay taxes, but it certainly is nothing like we have to pay when we have insurance through your insurance programs.”

At least on that issue, it sounds like the union and employers have some common goals.

Just the other day, I heard somebody say that unions may have outlived their influence. I said, “Don’t ever believe that.”

The role has changed a bit. In the past, maybe the union would take on a case that was a bit iffy, but so would management. Today you see that very, very seldom. In today’s environment, there is much more that we have in common.

A local member, Coopersville resident Greg Shotwell, a Delphi worker, has become an industry celebrity through his outspoken dissidence. What is your opinion of Shotwell and his Soldiers of Solidarity group?

Is he a thorn in our side? An individual that thinks differently than we do? Yes. Does that make him all bad? No, but it does cause a few problems sometimes. He does have followers, but he doesn’t have as big an influence as he thinks he does.

I’ll tell you the problem: The media gives him too much attention. They keep calling him and egging it on. What they don’t realize is that most of the people in his own local don’t agree with him. We have some dissidents — the New Directions Movement, those people had some influence, enough to make an impact. SOS has never gotten off the ground.    

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