United Automobile Workers President Dennis Williams, wearing a dark suit and red shirt, raised his fist and led union members through several fiery chants Wednesday as he laid out his vision for the union and its negotiating priorities with the Detroit Three automakers and other employers.
“When I raise my fist, I am talking about unity, I am talking about solidarity,” Williams told delegates gathered in Detroit for the union’s bargaining convention.
Williams said the UAW understands the pressures of globalization that employers face, but railed about an economic recovery from the worst recession in decades that has failed to deliver pay increases for many in the middle class. Williams said it has led to an America where people work more than 40 hours per week and still live in near-poverty.
“I believe in a $15-an-hour minimum wage,” Williams said. “It makes sense for the United States of America.”
When it comes to upcoming contract talks with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, Williams made it clear he would like to eliminate an entry-level wage that was approved by UAW members in 2007 when the automakers were losing money and market share. The UAW’s four-year contract with the Detroit Three expires in September.
“I truly believe that our companies know that we can be both creative and thoughtful,” Williams said. “But make no doubt about it, they also know, that as we share in the bad times, we must equally share in the good times.”
One of the prevailing themes at the UAW’s two-day bargaining convention has been the idea of “bridging the gap” — a reference to seeking a raise for the lower-paid autoworkers, who earn a maximum of $19.28 per hour, to bring them closer to the $28 per hour, on average, that workers hired before 2008 make.
About 28 percent of the more than 137,000 autoworkers the UAW represents are entry-level workers.
Many UAW members have urged union leaders to try to eliminate the second tier altogether because the union was founded on the idea that all workers should be paid according to the same scale.
Williams told the 900 or so delegates at the UAW convention that he’s been listening to them.
“The UAW will never abandon the principles on which we were founded,” Williams said. “We believe in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, and we believe in equal pay for equal work.”
But this year, automakers, who have managed to lower their average labor costs over the past seven years, will argue that they cannot slide backward to contracts they had with the UAW less than 10 years ago that forced them to pay workers as much as $30 per hour more than Asian and German automakers in the U.S. when all benefits are included.
For Williams, the challenge will be not only to negotiate a contract that appeases autoworkers, but also to negotiate new contracts with workers at John Deere, the State of Michigan and a number of other employers.
“This year, we have a great responsibility, full of challenges,” Williams said. “Throughout the country, we have a lot of contracts (to negotiate), and you know there is a great deal at stake. Our challenge is real.”