DETROIT - Just days after his election as the new president of the United Auto Workers, Bob King was at the U.S. Social Forum here with a message: "The UAW will, from here on out, speak up for and lead the fight for all workers, regardless of whether they are in unions."
The UAW aims to play a major role in the 2010 mid-term elections, King told the People's World on Wednesday after he sat in on a workshop his union ran about UAW campaigns to stop plant closings.
"We are going to work very hard for pro-labor and progressive candidates," he said, "and we will give voice to the real concerns of working people who want jobs, income and economic justice. People will respond to this because they need these things much more than they need anything that the Tea Party has to offer."
Scott Bean, assistant director of the UAW's Solidarity House here, cited the union's struggle to save and organize the former NUMMI plant in Fremont, Calif. ,as an example of the direction in which he said the UAW and the labor movement as a whole should be moving.
The unionized California plant was, on paper at least, jointly operated by GM and Toyota, with Toyota actually in control of 85 percent to 90 percent of the operation. Toyota decided two years ago to move Corolla production from Fremont to Mississsippi and close its Fremont plant altogether.
Some participants at the Social Forum workshop asked why the union was discussing a plant in California while Detroit itself is reeling from layoffs and joblessness.
"There are compelling reasons for this," Bean said, "because the issues workers faced with the closing of that plant are precisely the ones labor and its allies must grapple with across the country."
He explained that Toyota's shutdown move in California took place in the context of moving plants abroad in search of cheaper labor. The company wanted to shut the Fremont plant because it was Toyota's only unionized facility in the U.S., Bean said. With all the attention Toyota has been getting over safety issues, he said, it was logical for the union to mount a campaign there.
Bean said the line had to be drawn there because Toyota, as a result of vehicles produced in Fremont, had become the biggest beneficiary of the Cash for Clunkers program initiated by the government to help stimulate the economy. "How ironic that they get that benefit and then make a move to damage the economy for so many in California," he said.
Ron Carver, who ran the UAW effort to save the NUMMI plant, described how, in order to succeed, the union had to reach out for allies.
"Any time a union fights a plant closing it must go out and bring in supporters," he said, "because people who are not key players might see the fight as just a skirmish between Big Corporation and Big Labor. People must understand that getting rid of those union jobs, those benefits will destroy the surrounding community. It's not just the 5,000 jobs at the plant. It's the 50,000 jobs in the surrounding community."
Carver urged the many community activists present at the union-run workshop to be vigilant about any signs that job -producing companies in their areas are about to disinvest or cut jobs. "As soon as there are any signs, that's the time to start the fight," he said.
Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, said that even though Toyota pulled out of the Fremont plant the strong fightback was the reason Toyota ended up pulling in the Tesla Corporation to build electric cars at the plant. Right now there are several hundred workers there and the union says it will put on the pressure to get that figure back up to where it was before, and more.
Toyota has announced that it will remain neutral and do nothing to interfere with UAW efforts to re-organize the plant. "We'll see if they stick to that promise," said Chaiken, "but at least, because unions and community groups got together and fought together, we are dealing with a live plant, not an abandoned and rusted hulk. There's room, this way, for a lot more victories."
Photo: UAW President Bob King at the U.S. Social Forum. (PW/John Rummel)