Economy & Trade, Financial Crisis, Headlines, Labour, North America

Q&A: Unions Are Key to Healthy Auto Industry

Bankole Thompson interviews RON GETTELFINGER, head of the United Auto Workers

DETROIT, Michigan, Dec 2 2008 (IPS) - For the last six years, Ron Gettelfinger has been president of the 640,000-member United Auto Workers (UAW), the union that has been the face of the working men and women manufacturing cars in U.S. factories for decades.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger Credit: Bankole Thompson/IPS

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger Credit: Bankole Thompson/IPS

With 500,000 active retired members in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, the UAW prides itself as one of the pillars of the United States’ labour movement.

As auto executives from General Motors, Chrysler and Ford make another pitch to Congress this week for a 25-billion-dollar loan, Gettelfinger, who was on Capitol Hill last week testifying before Congress, tells IPS correspondent Bankole Thompson that refusal of a loan could spell devastating consequences for the U.S. economy and millions of families who will lose their incomes.

IPS: What do you make of some members of Congress seeking to reopen the labour agreements in auto bailout plan? RG: Well, first of all it’s a bridge loan. It’s not a bailout. The second thing is I’m sure that there are some members of Congress – the anti-union group – that would like to see the agreement opened. But the thing that they are not giving consideration to is the fact that in the mid-term contract in 2005 and then in 2007, the union – the men and women of the UAW – stood up and made significant changes in our contract.

And those are ongoing changes. It’s not like the companies receive the benefit of everything and then walked away and the agreements stayed in place. And as a result of the changes, it put the companies in a position where they are very competitive with the foreign brands that operate in this country.

IPS: Do you agree that the Big Three executives failed to make a compelling case before Congress? RG: I think first of all if you look at the hearing, everybody – including myself – went there not knowing what the expectation was. We are each given a total of five minutes to make a statement and then members of the Senate Banking Committee as well as the House Finance Committee were able to then ask questions.

Like in the case of the House, each member that wanted to ask a question had five minutes. But if they used four minutes of that time and then asked a question, all you could do is answer it and there isn’t a lot of time. So it’s not like anybody was asked to make a case other than to say that there is a critical need for us to get this bridge loan – that’s not brought about by the UAW, not brought about because of the [auto] industry, it’s brought about because of the economic downturn.

If you look at the vehicles sales in this country, we went from 16 to 17 million vehicles sales down to a seasonal rate during the month of October at 10.8 million. That’s dramatic and it came about because consumers cannot get reasonable rates on loans. It came about because of the sub-prime mortgage issues. It came about because of Wall Street, the failure of the banks. It came about because of volatility in the stock market, the energy prices, the lack of consumer confidence.

The fact is that since December of last year, we lost 1.2 million jobs in this country, most of which were in the private sector. And if you go to the month of October alone, it was 42,000. So there are other factors here other than just saying that the industry didn’t make the case.

IPS: Labour has always been the base of the Democratic Party. President-elect Barack Obama ran as a labour candidate. Do you expect a return on investment in this bailout talk? RG: I don’t think this is a political issue. This is about America. The economy is in the tank. Barack Obama is going to have the worst job of anybody in America. The expectations are very high for his ability to turn things around. I think he’s got a grasp of what’s going on, he’s going to hit the ground running. And I think we’ll see some really immediate impact about what he is doing.

But the fact that we [supported his candidacy] doesn’t mean we should get any special treatment than anyone else. And again this is a problem about millions of Americans. This will impact our nation as a whole. We are losing the middle class. I hope that Obama can do something about this. He indicated he’s aware of what these free trade agreements are doing to our country.

IPS: What is your take on fuel efficiency and clean energy? RG: Well, you know we are there and we are working hard in that regard. I know what the industry has done because I’m privileged to go around to their product development centres. I was privileged to go to Chrysler along with vice president General Holiefield in July and we drove the electric vehicles around the test track out there well before they introduced them to the media.

General Motors has got more vehicles on the road today that get over 30 miles to the gallon than any other manufacturer. They’ve got the two mode hybrid – the Tahoe. It does better. It got green car of the year award. It does better in the city on EPA, the mileage, than the I4 Toyota Camry. So here’s a big Tahoe and here’s a small Toyota Camry and in the city this vehicle [Tahoe] gets there. Ford has got the first hybrid out there in the SUV market – they are continuing to make improvements on it.

IPS: Critics say labour leaders are disconnected from their members for failing to answer to issues facing their members in the workplace. What is your reaction? RG: Well, first of all, some of that is probably warranted. But I think for the most part our polling doesn’t show that. Our polling doesn’t show that we are disconnected. You know we have a very democratic union. We have our regional directors, our board members who are regional directors spread out across the country in 11 different regions. We got our officers and we interface with the leadership more than we do with the average member. But our officers get out. We work the lines. We go to rallies. If we ask people to work the phone banks, we work the phone banks. And look, I come in contact with a lot of our members just getting around in the community because our members are a slice of society.

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