Eric Mayne's Blog

Laboring Under Assumptions

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It's safe to say UAW President Bob King and Canadian economist Sherry Cooper run in different circles.

Both are, in my experience, bright and engaging. But the newly elected King's everyman personna seems to clash with Cooper's polished elegance.

So when each begins to sound like the other, you notice.

Following his first press conference as UAW chief, King smiles -- knowingly, not joyfully -- when I ask him about labor unrest in China that has caused hiccups for Honda and other manufacturers. "There is a lot of anger and frustration in the world," he says, his smile quickly fading.

This echoes Cooper's recent presentation to Canada's Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Assn. She noted China's labor strife, saying it has contributed to wealth disparity that "makes the U.S. look like Sweden."

Warned Cooper: “People will work for nothing for only so long."

Against this backdrop, King not only rattles his saber, he offers a peek at an all-out battleplan to organize North America's transplants. The UAW's newly elected secretary-treasurer, Dennis Williams, has been assigned to spearhead the initiative, which also calls on the advocacy of rank-and-file members.

"There has been frustration in the transplants for a long time," King says.

Auto makers such as Toyota, Honda and Nissan deny such accusations and point to the success of their non-union operations.

While King is rallying his troops at the UAW's constitutional convention in Detroit, Toyota's assembly site in Cambridge, ON, Canada, -- target of failed organizing bids by the UAW and CAW -- is identified as North America's top plant in the 2010 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study.

Yet transplants remain a topic of whispers involving injured workers whose lives are upended by scandalous shop-floor practices.

Is there enough dissension to compel these workers sign union cards? King and his cohorts claim there is, as long as they are able to organize without fear of reprisal.

Such conditions would be ensured by the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, according to labor activists. The legislation would give U.S. workers the right to determine if there is sufficient support amongst themselves to vote on union representation.

Authority to sanction such a referendum now rests with employers, the UAW says.

Kudos to King and Cooper for their observations about these tumultuous times. Change is coming.

But organizing won't guarantee success in the marketplace any more than maintaining the status quo. Tension always will exist between auto workers and "the bosses," whom King castigated for taking bonuses after his members accepted clawbacks.

It's a law of nature. Just as the other line always moves faster, the other guy always makes more money than he deserves.

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