Learning from the Past, Improving the Future: The New UAW

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As part of Customer Care News’ continuing series of interviews with business leaders regarding employee collaboration and improving customer satisfaction and customer care, Dr. Keith Levick recently spoke with Joe Ashton, vice president of the United Auto Workers (UAW)-General Motors Corporation (GM).

UAW LogoCCN: Some use the term “reinvention” when looking at Michigan. General Holiefield called it “rebranding” from the UAW point of view, and the Michigan Labor-Management Association conference theme scheduled in April refers to “restoring dialog.” As the vice president of the UAW-GM, how do you see the UAW today?

JA:I think all three statements, whether we say it’s reinvention, rebranding or restoring conversation, are all important elements in the new UAW. I think it’s important to continue to have dialog with General Motors. They have taken an initiative with their new CEO Dan Akerson to continue to have ongoing dialog with the UAW leadership. Because it’s so important for the UAW to be successful, whether it’s at Ford, Chrysler or General Motors, those companies have to be successful also, and we saw in the past several months a real turnabout with Ford and General Motors. Their share of the industry is up; people are looking more at the American brands. Their quality now is competitive with any brand, and I think we are taking a step in the right direction. And I think to continue to do so, we have to have that dialog and we have to show the American public that not only the company, but the UAW and its members also have a stake in the success of these companies.

CCN: The past few years have been a rollercoaster, especially on the Big Three, with the economy and the bankruptcies; what’s it been like for the UAW and GM?

JA: Well, needless to say, it’s been a very, very difficult period. I think the leadership of Ron Gettelfinger and the previous Vice President Cal Rapson did a tremendous job by sitting down and negotiating an agreement to keep us out of absolute destruction. We were heading for bankruptcy, and the bailout enabled us to continue to operate. And since that’s happened, we have several success stories. We need more. General Motors has done something that they have never done before, or haven’t done in many years, and that’s to decide to build a small vehicle in Michigan, in Lake Orion. That saved thousands of jobs, not only in building that vehicle but also the suppliers. And that’s the thing we are looking for. We had to be innovative in that agreement and we are looking to convince the companies to put more and more jobs back in the states. That’s what it’s about. That’s what the upcoming negotiations are going to be about — jobs. Jobs, jobs and jobs: those are our three highest priorities. Not only to bring jobs back to Michigan, but also to bring jobs back throughout the country.

CCN: This is a critical issue for Michigan and across the country. Without giving any secrets away, what’s the response regarding that?

JA: I think for the first time, General Motors is taking a long look, like they did with Lake Orion. The vehicle that they’re building in Lake Orion was scheduled to be built in Korea, and they sat down with us, and we worked out an agreement to have that vehicle built here. And we’re also looking at bringing trucks that normally have been built in Mexico in the past back here to be built. We can be competitive now; our quality is second to none. We have an experienced workforce and we know that we can do a better job than anybody else. And that’s whether it’s General Motors, Ford or Chrysler.

CCN: Compare if you would, what’s going on today with what it was like 10, 15, 20 years ago. What are some of the major differences?

JA: I think one of the major differences is competition. There’s so much more competition than there was 20 years ago, than there was 10 years ago. Ten years ago, our competition was with the Japanese companies. Now the new competition is going to be with the Korean companies and also the German companies, which are coming back into the picture. There are so many brands out there that your brand has to stand out. And I think with the engineering that Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have been doing, it is giving us a step forward. I think the orders for General Motors’ premier electrical vehicle speak for themselves. I think the orders far exceeded what General Motors thought and what any analyst projected, and I think that kind of technology and the quality that we are building in our vehicles is going to set us apart.

CCN: Can you speak to customer service? And when I talk about “customer service,” I’m talking not only in terms of the external customer but also the internal customers. In other words, every employee is one another’s customer. Have you seen a shift or a different way of thinking regarding customer service?

JA: There has to be. That’s why quality is so important. Quality used to be an issue that the company and the UAW perceived as more or less one of the main issues. We have an obligation to the American public to build the best cars available. Also, to give customers the best service available, because we know now, statistically, that if you get a good vehicle and good service, seven times out of 10 you’ll buy another vehicle from the company again. And that’s something that we all focus on, not only the company but the UAW too. If you have listened to Bob King or anybody else in his administration about quality, about being competitive, that’s what we are going to have to look at, not only in this negotiation, but also in the negotiations to come.

CCN: In looking back, comparing today versus 10 or 15 years ago, you note that competition is one critical issue. Is there anything else that stands out to you?

JA: I think there is no doubt that wages are much more competitive than they were 10 years ago. I think the UAW took the first big step when it took the liability of the medical away from the Big Three. The cost savings on that to the industry itself is astronomical, and GM and Ford in particular were always criticized about the legacy cost. Now, it’s something that they don’t have to deal with anymore and it makes them more competitive. I think in the long run, the auto companies will be more competitive and sell more vehicles. This is in the best interest of our membership, the Big Three and our suppliers.

CCN: I would imagine that taking liability away from the auto companies was a tough sell?

JA: It was very difficult. We have been fortunate; not to get into the VEBA (Voluntary Employees’ Beneficiary Association) structure itself, but the agreement involved General Motors’ and Ford’s stock, and they ended up being worth much more than we originally negotiated.

CCN: In the past, there was a perception of an adversarial relationship between the UAW and the Big Three. How would you describe the relationship today?

Joe AshtonJA: I think we can say the relationship with GM has gotten to the point where it’s not just “business as usual.” There’s open dialog that started during the past few years, and that kind of communication continues today. We, or the company, aren’t in the position to have an adversarial position with each other because we don’t want to end up where we were two years ago.

CCN: So, as you see things moving forward from this date on, where is the UAW headed?

JA: I think it’s going to be important for us to have the 2011 negotiations be successful for both parties, and for us to move forward. I think that we are on the right track, that General Motors and Ford have picked up market share and that they’re continuing to pick up market share. We want to continue to build on that success and I think the only way to accomplish that is working together.

CNN: Do you think that the negotiations in 2011 will be a little smoother and more transparent between the companies?

JA: We would hope that would be the case. We feel that General Motors, I can only speak for General Motors because that’s who I deal with on a day-to-day basis, has been much more transparent than they have in the past.

CCN: One of the things that I have noticed is the shrinking of manufacturing in the State of Michigan and around the country. I would imagine that has affected your membership. What is the UAW doing to get new members?

JA: There’s no doubt that it’s had an effect on our membership. In fact, this whole country has had a shrinking manufacturing base. But Bob King has started an aggressive campaign to organize the plants around the world…. Under Bob King’s leadership, we are going to be much more aggressive in our organizing efforts. Also, the biggest growth in our union has been gaming. Besides the casinos in Detroit, we organized almost 3,000 people in Foxwood in Connecticut and 3,000 people in Atlantic City. Additionally, we have a contract in Indiana, so we have been very aggressive. And we currently have another nine or 10 additional campaigns in the gaming industry going on. We feel that by the end of the year, we’ll have an additional 8,000 members. People don’t realize it but the UAW was the first union to organize dealers in the United States. Dealers have never been organized, and that’s what we started in Detroit, then Atlantic City, then Connecticut, then Indiana and now we’re looking at Pennsylvania and Ohio.

CCN: I think you’re right, most people are not aware of that. Having trained in some casinos, I know the stress the dealers experience.

JA: I don’t think people realize the amount of stress that the dealers experience. It’s a very, very difficult job; without tokes (tips), it’s not a high paying hourly job. And I think it’s an area that we have been successful in organizing. Like I said, this year alone we have five new agreements. We’re going into negotiations again this year in Detroit and we expect to organize another 8,000 throughout the country.

CCN: So, the UAW is aggressively pursuing foreign auto plants in this country and unionizing parts of casinos. I also read that the UAW is trying to unionize European facilities.

JA: I think it’s important for us to realize that it’s a global economy; it’s a global union and global workers. And we have to take an active position and protect the welfare of those workers. If they continue to make low wages and they continue to be treated improperly, we have an obligation, because we’re not only a union, but we’re also a social organization. The UAW for years, starting with the Walter Reuther era, was an organization that stood up for the rights of people — be it civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights; we were and will continue to be on the front line.

CCN: I’m guessing that many people have no idea about that part of the UAW. They only see what they have read or seen on television, which often times is extremely negative.

JA: Well, I think it’s sad because if you look back in history you will definitely find that the UAW helped to build the middle class. The boat that we were floating at the time — everybody was on it. It didn’t matter if you were a schoolteacher, whether you were union or whether you were non-union. It was this movement that started with a pension plan, which led to health plans, and that trickled down to other organizations. That’s why it’s so important to maintain a union movement in this country. In most cases, people don’t realize it’s a social voice for working men and women.

CCN: Are you alluding to the fact that workers in Germany, France, Korea, etc. face similar issues as the American workers?

JA: I think all countries are facing the same issues, including companies that outsource work to different countries. There’s no doubt about it. Regardless if you’re a dealer, an autoworker, a policeman, a fireman, a teacher; whatever industry you’re in or country you work in, the issues are similar and the UAW is there to protect all workers’ rights.

CCN: Protecting the rights of workers certainly comes with challenges. This had to be a huge undertaking during this past recession.

JA: The downtrend in the economy has had a desperate effect on all of us. And it really doesn’t matter if you’re management or whether you’re in the union, you’re a worker. Ninety-nine percent of the people work for a company; they don’t own it. Therefore, we’re all in the same boat. There have been significant cutbacks across the board. And we believe that we all have to have a voice together to turn this around and make not only the auto industry work, but also the entire country. When the auto industry was doing well in Michigan, it didn’t only affect autoworkers; it affected schools, police, fire, teachers and suppliers. A study conducted by Cornell University showed that each job in the auto industry affects seven or eight other jobs. That’s why when there were discussions about GM and Chrysler going down, we knew it would affect seven million people across the United States. We have to create more jobs here, and we have to expand our presence to other types of industries.

CNN: What are some of the active things that the UAW is doing to restore, reinvent or rebrand itself?

JA: Some of the things that I already mentioned like being more involved globally, more aggressive organizing especially with the transplants, and involvement in gaming and other industries to expand the union. And equally important is the openness of management and the UAW to work together to make these companies and its people successful.

CCN: If you have one piece of advice for other companies, even outside the auto industry, as it relates to recovering from the past two years, what would it be?

JA: I think it’s difficult just to say one thing, but I think the most important thing is communicating with your workforce, whether we are talking about management or labor. To keep an ongoing dialog and listen to the people in most industries that deal with the product, build the product, whether it’s the dealership that sells it or an automaker that makes it. Listen to what they have to say. It’s important to remember, in this global economy, that quality, competitive price and exceptional customer service are the three most important things that drive the consumer.

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