United Auto Workers 29th Constitutional Convention

By Guzda, Henry P. | Monthly Labor Review, October 1989 | Go to article overview

United Auto Workers 29th Constitutional Convention


Guzda, Henry P., Monthly Labor Review


United Auto Workers 29th constitutional convention

Democracy--economic, social, and political--was the dominant theme of the 29th constitutional convention of the United Auto Workers (UAW). It was a gathering that could have been confrontational and divisive, particularly because of a well-organized and growing dissident faction within the union. Yet, when the proceedings ended, it was clear that the philosophy of the majority prevailed, while the rights of the dissidents were honored and their protests heard. In addition, the delegates passed a host of resolutions pledging to support trade unionism and solidarity on a gloval scale, and to organize foreign-owned auto production facilities in the United States. The attendees also pondered the future of the trade union movement, while remembering the struggles for economic and social justice that have continued for more than 50 years.

New directions or old?

Observers of auto industry labor relations have noted the emergence of dissidence in the UAW over the past decade. A group calling themselves the "New Directions" movement and led by Jerry Tucker, director of region 5, argue that the union's leaders have coopted members' rights by cooperating with employers in joint labor-management programs. They contend that auto manufacturers have used joint programs (for example, team concept production and Japanese style management) to erode seniority provisions, reduce wage rates, and jeopardize other collective bargaining benefits by pitting local unions against each other during contract negotiations and in plant closing situations--a process they call "whipsawing." New Directions members, paradoxically, want union leaders to abandon labor-management cooperation and revert to the philosophy of adversarial labor-management relations prevalent in the postwar era of the 1950's. New Directions candidates have challenged incumbent leaders for local and national offices, and have even used the judicial process to win some contested elections.

Proponents of New Directions and the incumbent UAW leaders have debated the philosophy of the union. Donald Douglas, president of local 594 in Pontiac, MI, claims "the whipsawing is just tearing us [the UAW] apart and eroding our solidarity." UAW president Owen Bieber, however, contends that "critics insult the intelligence of UAW members by suggesting that participation in joint programs will compromise or contaminate the values of union workers or subvert the union's independence." He further explained, "just because we use the vehicle of joint activities to pursue some of our objectives, does not mean that we plan to surrender any of the other tools and resources that are available to help us achieve our goals."

Bieber took issue with charges that the union's executive leadership failed to protect worker rights and challenge antiunion onslaughts in a corporate "age of greed." He retorted that the UAW authorized 817 strikes over the past 3 years, and that 81,721 UAW members marched on picket lines. He reminded the delegates that at a time when many workers have suffered economic hardships, the UAW accomplished several goals, including: * Job bank programs benefiting nearly

40,000 members and their families. * Winning Trade Adjustment

Assistance for 677,000 members. * Obtaining $200 million in Job

Training Partnership Act funds. * Protection for more than 100,000

jobs through job security provisions

in pattern-bargaining contracts.

Speeches from invited guests also reflected a commitment to new innovations in the workplace. California Attorney General John Van de Kamp focused on the industrial patterns of work at the New United Motors Manufacturing plant in Fremont, CA, where employee involvement has produced high quality products. Maine Senator George Mitchell spoke about new workplace partnerships and New York Governor Mario Cuomo echoed a similar theme. …

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