UAW president leads discussions on labor unions

Lorenz Gonzales/Staff

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Bob King, president of the United Automobile Workers labor union — one of the largest in the nation with more than 390,000 active members — made two appearances on campus Monday to speak about the importance of organizing, collective bargaining and global solidarity for unions.

His appearances came in the wake of UAW’s failed attempt to represent a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Feb. 14.

King’s first appearance was at Boalt Hall in the early afternoon, with about 100 attendees composed of faculty, students, community members and some UAW members. King was invited by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law at UC Berkeley.

“We were very interested for the Center for Latin American Studies to organize an event for which he would speak about his vision of labor in a global context,” said professor Harley Shaiken, chair of CLAS.

At the discussion, King used the Chattanooga incident as a crux to voice concerns about income inequality, the importance of sustaining the middle class and the role of workers’ rights in strengthening democracy.

“If we care about a fair society, if we really believe we want a democracy of America, there must be a broader support for workers’ right to organize,” King said in the lecture. He stressed later that there should be more public support from social justice advocates and that it “cannot just be labor speaking out.”

King described the Chattanooga loss as a missed opportunity for the first works council to emerge in the United States. He argued that conservative politicians such as Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam swayed voters to support anti-union representation.

After the election, UAW filed an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a new election, saying in an official statement that “interference by politicians and outside special interest groups” influenced voters. The National Labor Relations Board is in the process of reviewing UAW’s appeal.

“There is some legal precedent that I think will give the NLRB grounds to say that this was not a fair election,” said King in an interview before the event. He added that it was a setback, but the issue wasn’t over.

Mike Donaldson, member of Northern California union SEIU Local 1021, said he recognized the impact of the event in Chattanooga on all workers, unionized or not, as well as the influence of outside political forces.

“We have to be aware of those types of things because they’re going to be happening everywhere,” Donaldson said. “California’s not immune; Berkeley’s not immune.”

King made his second appearance at 6 p.m. to lead a discussion with Shaiken about the Chattanooga event, unions in a global context and UAW’s international reach.

Contact Jean Lee at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @missjeanlee.