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UAW Leadership Faces Dissident Challenge

June 17, 1989|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — A loose-knit group of dissidents within the United Auto Workers, angered by the union's increasing cooperation with auto industry management, is considering forming an organized opposition union caucus that would operate independently of the UAW's current hierarchy.

The dissident group, called New Directions, may use the union's national convention beginning Sunday at the Anaheim Convention Center as the forum for announcing a more structured opposition inside the UAW--an organization that would have its own staff and even collect dues from willing members.

If New Directions goes ahead with the plan, it would represent the most serious challenge to the authority of the leadership of the million-member industrial union in decades.

New Directions leaders and supporters say they won't decide until the six-day convention is under way whether to create such an organization. But even without a formal structure, New Directions has already shaken the union to its foundations, forcing a union-wide debate on what direction the UAW and the labor movement in general should take into the 1990s.

Stage Set in Spring Elections

The Anaheim convention, in fact, is likely to become the focal point for that debate and is almost certain to go down as one of the most controversial UAW gatherings in years.

The dissidents, holding perhaps as many as 200 seats in the 2,000-delegate convention, seek to open up a floor debate on a wide range of procedural and philosophical issues that they believe need to be addressed to make the union more responsive to the rank-and-file.

"New Directions will be trying to bring democracy back to our union," said Victor Reuther, the 77-year-old brother of the UAW's legendary Walter Reuther and now a supporter of the New Directions group.

The stage for the Anaheim fight was set in regional union elections this spring, when two of New Directions' leaders, Don Douglas and Jerry Tucker, ran spirited, though unsuccessful, campaigns against the administration of UAW President Owen Bieber and his willingness to cooperate more fully with management on a wide range of shop-floor issues. Douglas and Tucker opposed Bieber's acceptance of Japanese-style "team concept" agreements and related labor-management programs now in dozens of U.S. auto plants.

In their campaign for positions as regional directors who sit on the UAW's 22-member governing executive board, Tucker and Douglas exploited the growing frustration among the rank-and-file over such joint programs to mount serious challenges against Bieber-endorsed candidates.

UAW leaders and auto executives say that "team" programs are necessary if the U.S. auto industry is to remain competitive with Japanese car makers. But the dissidents respond that such programs undermine the contractual rights of union members and don't offer any real job security, pointing to instances in which workers have accepted such programs only to be laid off later on.

'A Lot of Rhetoric'

"Despite these joint programs, the problems we have had are not being addressed," complained Frank Hammer, president of UAW Local 909 in Warren, Mich., who supports Douglas. "To a lot of the members, this jointness is just a lot of rhetoric, something that is not backed up with any change in the way people are treated."

In the end, Douglas and Tucker narrowly lost their efforts to win enough delegates to be elected at the convention as regional directors--but not before putting a scare into the UAW leadership. Douglas, a union local president from Pontiac, Mich., won a series of landslides in a number of big General Motors plants in his race for a Detroit-area regional directorship, and only lost after the incumbent, Robert Lent, made a comeback at Chrysler plants where he had spent much of his early union career.

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