DETROIT – Opening the 29th National Convention of the United Auto Workers union on June 14, Region 1A Director Rory Gamble said it was a very wise decision to meet here in this city because, “Detroit, just like men and women throughout our country, has been under attack.”
The UAW and its workers have been through a tumultuous period. Michigan has lost 800,000 jobs since 2000 and 250,000 people are unemployed in this city whose population has fallen to less than a million.
Outgoing UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said structural changes in the industry, combined with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, created “the darkest hours since the founding of the union,” 75 years ago.
He was referring to last years bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler and the new attacks on labor from the far right.
“We must never forget there were several right-wing conservatives in Washington who wanted us to fade away. Let’s be clear, the contempt for the UAW was so great that some were willing to let the industry collapse to destroy us.”
On the other hand, Gettelfinger praised the role played by President Obama in saving the auto industry.
“Without hesitation, President Barack Obama addressed the auto industry and took the necessary steps. Just over a year later, Chrysler is expanding production; GM is recalling workers and adding shifts,” Gettelfinger added.
Most employers vigorously opposed unions but, Gettelfinger said, in the recent period, there is a “drumbeat of anti-union chatter” and “smear tactics against the UAW like never before.”
On June 2, the anti-labor chatter in Michigan came from Newt Gingrich. At the Michigan Mackinac Policy Conference, the nation’s largest state-based free market think tank, he called for Michigan to become a right-to-work state. (“Right-to-work” mean anti-union laws that make it next to impossible for workers to exercise their right to organize and bargain with their employer collectively.)
Gingrich also said that Michigan for years has subsidized people who were not productive and that the state’s economy is built on “excessive expectation.”
“These anti-union forces are simply motivated by greed,” Gettelfinger charged.
Governor Jennifer Granholm addressed the convention, and she, too, had harsh words for those who “worship at the alter of a free market.”
“If we were hands-off last year, GM and Chrysler would have been liquidated. Your jobs would have been gone. We would be a nation that makes nothing” she said.
Gettelfinger reminded the membership that labor has a friend in the White House, and recalled then-Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 Detroit Labor Day speech when Obama told the crowd “I don’t choke on the word union.”
He spoke about other positive changes that have taken place under this administration including the $790 billion stimulus program, sweeping health care reform, the Lilly Ledbetter decision and the appointments of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
These were listed to drive home the importance of the upcoming 2010 midterm elections.
“Once again we will be called upon to work hard. We must deliver this fall to allow President Obama to continue making progress” said Gettelfinger.
Receiving social justice awards were Congressmen John Lewis of Georgia and John Dingell of Michigan.
Lewis echoed previous remarks on the midterm elections saying we must “vote this year like we have never voted before.”
Regarding the Employee Free Choice Act he said “We control the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives. Let’s pass it and pass it now.”
Dingell who has been a long time supporter for national health care welcomed the new legislation, but said the “task now is to preserve, protect and expand that program.”
Still to be accomplished Dingell noted are “jobs, recovery of the economy and protection of rights for working families.”
Later in the week delegates will vote for a new president, widely expected to be Vice President Bob King.