DETROIT - "We're not just fighting for ourselves; we're fighting for every worker in America," United Auto Workers President Bob King said in his opening address to the union's 2011 special bargaining convention that began here on Tuesday.
The UAW's special convention, held every four years, sets the overall agenda for the union's work for coming period.
This year, more than 1,200 union activists from across the country are here for the three-day meet, representing not only autoworkers but also workers in public sector, higher education and other kinds of jobs. It is the first major national union gathering since the Wisconsin workers sparked a national uprising last month. Underscoring its national impact, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and national Democratic Party strategist Donna Brazile were among the opening-day speakers. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is scheduled to address the meeting on Thursday, as well as TV-radio host Ed Schultz.
In his opening remarks, King emphasized building the power of the labor movement by fighting for all workers. He called for a return to the social consciousness of the union's founders, saying, "In the '30s, '40s and '50s, people thought the UAW cared about and fought for everybody in America."
He connected the struggles of those founders, the 1936-37 Flint sit-down strikers at General Motors and the 1932 hunger marchers at Ford, to the present struggles of U.S. workers and democracy activists in Egypt. "When there is mass, non-violent, direct action, workers win tremendous victories," he said. "We have to go back and talk to our membership. The pensions they deserve, the wages and benefits they deserve are gong to continue to erode unless we rebuild the power of the American labor movement."
Looking ahead to the 2012 elections, the UAW head spoke of the importance of re-electing President Obama. He lauded the president for what he described as Obama's almost single-handed role in saving the auto industry and the union. Addressing criticisms of Obama for not doing enough, King said, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We have never had a president as friendly toward labor."
Regarding UAW contracts that expire later this year with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler-Fiat, King said the union would work to tackle two issues that bother many: the insecurity faced by thousands of temporary employees in the auto industry, and two-tier wages that have new hires earning about half of what other autoworkers make.
King said the union would work to get permanent status for temporary workers. Referring to Ford Motor Co.'s CEO, King said, "When Alan Mullaly can make over $50 million in a bonus, temporary workers have a right to a permanent job."
He said the union would also seek to reduce both the two-tier gap and the time it takes for second-tier workers to get full pay.
In this era of globalization, the fight for better wages and benefits is tied to the ability of autoworkers throughout the world to wage a unified fight, King said. He reported that the UAW has significantly stepped up its global outreach and is meeting with autoworkers from Germany, South Korea, Mexico and elsewhere. An international steering committee of autoworkers has been formed and has ties with the International Metalworkers Federation.
Pointing to the Wisconsin workers' struggle against Gov. Scott Walker, Illinois Gov. Quinn told the convention that unions are the heart and soul of this country. "We're here to tell ‘that governor' in Wisconsin and other governors that we're not going to let your crowd take over," Quinn declared. "We are going to fight back this year and every year."
Quinn's remarks spurred UAW Region 1A Director Rory Gamble, who represents workers in the Detroit area, to quip, "I wonder if Governor Quinn has a twin brother we could import here to Michigan?" He was referring to Michigan workers' battle against the state's anti-union Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
Brazile cited the key role the UAW and other unions played in supporting the civil rights movement, she said, "Labor has always been at the forefront of any social justice movement."
She told the union delegates, "You are the backbone of this society. You are the mighty - the lifeblood of our democracy."
There were many standing ovations, and delegates said they were eager to carry the grassroots organizing message back to their locals.
Delegate Don Reinhart, shop chairman of UAW Local 659 at the Flint Metal Center, said the message he was taking back to his membership was, "We have to get out and do something. We can't let the leadership do it by themselves. We have to get the grassroots out there walking and talking."
Photo: A banner outside Detroit's Cobo Hall announces the UAW's 2011 Special Bargaining Convention. PW/John Rummel