In his speeches since being elected UAW president, Bob King has been like an erratic driver, swerving from one side of the road to another. Sometimes he speaks in unthreatening tones, defending freedom of speech and assembly. Minutes later, he can revert to the confrontational rhetoric that so damaged both Detroit and the UAW.
King appropriately acknowledges the UAW’s role in Detroit’s demise, decrying the adversarial relationships and insufficient concern for consumers. He also cites “work rules and narrow job classifications that hindered flexibility” and “promoted a litigious and time-consuming grievance culture.” He promises new relationships with companies based on a “foundation of respect, shared goals and a common mission.”
But then he veers across the road, flinging respect, shared goals and common missions out the window. In undertaking a crusade to unionize the global auto manufacturers, he threatens, for example, to “pound on” these employers “until they recognize the First Amendment rights of workers to come into the UAW.”
Of course, they already do. The global car makers have always honored their workers’ right to unionize — or not to unionize — according to existing labor laws. Their workers have consistently said “no” because they know their best interest and job security lies in keeping the UAW out.
On the one hand, King champions constitutional principles. He said, “Both the free press and free unions depend upon the right of free speech and freedom of association, which in this country are enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.” No disputing that.
But then he asserts: “In the United States, this right does not exist for private sector workers.” This will astound legal scholars, since private sector workers in the United States have the unfettered right to join labor unions, period. Perhaps King just doesn’t like the choices they have made, as UAW membership has nosedived from a peak of 1.5 million members to less than 400,000.
King would “stack the deck” in favor of the UAW by forcing companies to agree to “UAW Principles” that would (1) take away the very First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly for management that King claims to believe in and (2) deny the right of employees to a secret-ballot vote in union organizing elections. It is hard to imagine anything as undemocratic as denying the secret ballot.
But then King tortures logic by equating the failure of a company to capitulate to “UAW Principles” with violating workers’ rights, saying that the UAW “will not tolerate” it. Such an attitude has no place in an organization claiming to be driven by respect, shared goals and a common mission.
After manhandling both history and law, he veers back to the right side of the road again, with the proposition that “Democracy cannot coexist with fear.” Hear, hear!
King later contradicts himself, claiming, “This is not about our institutional self-interest.” However, institutional self-interest was at the core of his comments to a Washington conference last month: “If we don’t organize these transnationals, I don’t think there’s a long-term future for the UAW — I really don’t.”
He continues to rhapsodize, “We are advocating for a high road of common interests, shared strategies and shared success…our goal is not revenge or retaliation.”
Swerving back into oncoming traffic, King later declared that “… any company that does not agree to the UAW Principles is essentially declaring war on freedom of speech and assembly, and it is our duty and mission to enforce that right.”
Lest someone misunderstand his strident tones, he went on to declare: “Let me be clear, the UAW does not want to go to war with any company — we are advocating the opposite.”
Mr. King cannot have it both ways. Freedom of speech and assembly are rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution to everyone, not just to UAW officials and members. Workers have the right to say “yes” or “no” to unions, by voting in intimidation-free secret-ballot elections.
In lapsing back into the language of confrontation, Mr. King’s message seems to be that this is still “your father’s UAW.”
Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm in St. Louis. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris since 2002, is a fellow of numerous think tanks, and a frequent commenter in U.S. and U.K. newspapers.