State - Detroit Gettelfinger says card-check legislation fight will go on

By Dee-Ann Durbin

and Tom Krisher

AP Auto Writers

DETROIT (AP) -- United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger said Monday the union will continue to fight for federal card-check legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize, a high priority for the UAW as it continues to lose thousands of members.

In his final speech to the UAW after eight years as president, Gettelfinger also urged members to back union-friendly candidates in the November elections, saying conservative politicians showed their contempt for the UAW last year when they opposed the government's bailout of General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC.

"They were willing to let the industry collapse in order to destroy us," said Gettelfinger, who got a warm ovation from more than a thousand UAW members attending the union's quadrennial convention.

Otherwise, Gettelfinger said little about his hopes for the future of the 75-year-old union, which will choose a new president this week. Longtime UAW Vice President Bob King is expected to be elected, although he is facing a challenge from workers angry about wage concessions made while Gettelfinger was UAW chief.

Under Gettelfinger, GM, Chrysler and Ford workers agreed to cut wages in half to $14 an hour for new hires, and took other pay and benefit cuts. Gettelfinger didn't mention those concessions specifically, but said that the UAW did the best it could during one of the darkest times in its history. He said the union asked for concessions from its own workers as well.

"We faced these challenges and charted a course that led our great union down a path to survival," he said. "We are leaner, yes, but stronger, wiser and more determined as well."

Gary Walkowicz, a Ford Motor Co. worker making a long-shot bid to defeat King, said the union should go on strike to reverse the wage cuts if necessary. He also wants to restore bonuses, cost-of-living increases and other benefits workers agreed to give up during the economic downturn.

"A lot of the workers I talk to feel it's time for that to be undone," he said. But support for Walkowicz appeared weak on the convention floor, as he and his supporters lost a bid to dispense with union business so they could debate concessions and the UAW's strategy.

Gettelfinger said that as a result of the union's sacrifices, the U.S. auto industry is again profitable and gaining U.S. market share. Chrysler is hiring for the first time in a decade, he said, and GM will soon be the first automaker to assemble a subcompact car in the U.S., a decision made because wages have become more competitive.

"There is strong evidence that the worst is behind us and the industry is clearly rebounding," he said.

Gettelfinger added that more buyers are considering domestic brands after Toyota Motor Co.'s safety recalls earlier this year.

Gettelfinger acknowledged that the union has been losing membership at an alarming rate. There are now 355,000 active UAW members, down from a high of 1.5 million in 1979. He said the union, which recently organized 2,500 workers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, continues to look for members outside of the auto industry.

At the convention, the union debuted a series of 15-second ads promoting the collective strength of UAW members. It plans to run them in movie theaters.

The card-check legislation, also called the Employee Free Choice Act, would allow workers to join a union simply by filling out a card. It has been a priority for unions, but recently got a setback when a union-backed candidate was defeated in an Arkansas primary by Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who opposes the legislation.

Published: Wed, Jun 16, 2010