In the face of mounting criticism from union dissidents, the president of the United Auto Workers strongly defended his policy of increased cooperation with auto industry management at the opening of the UAW's national convention Sunday in Anaheim.
In his keynote address to the meeting's 2,000 delegates, UAW President Owen Bieber also blasted the dissidents--the union's "New Directions" faction--for their failure to understand the harsh realities of international competition.
The union must adapt to the modern environment, Bieber argued, and must be willing to establish joint programs with management on the shop floor to staunch the flow of jobs overseas.
"To be frank, I think those who say that workers don't want change in the workplace, who insist that the old ways were always the best ways, are insulting the intelligence of UAW members," Bieber said at the start of the six-day conference.
Replacing 'Raw Antagonism'
"There will always be a basic conflict between the interest of workers and the interst of employers," he observed. "But there needs to be something better than only conflict and only raw antagonism," he added.
Bieber's speech at the Anaheim Convention Center went to the heart of the bitter debate now under way between the leadership of the nation's most influential industrial union and the upstart New Directions coalition. It is a philosophical debate that has brought about the most serious rift that the union has experienced in decades.
The dissidents insist that cooperation with management has done little to provide workers with job security--the stated goal of most joint labor-management programs--and instead has subverted the rights of workers, reducing the union's power on the factory floor.
The New Directions faction argues that only when the UAW asserts its power--indeed, makes the companies fear it once more--will the union be able to protect its members from layoffs and plant closings.
As Bieber said Sunday, however, the UAW's leadership insists that it can't return to such an adversarial strategy. Unless the union works with management, the leaders argue, more and more jobs will simply slip overseas.
Stung by Dissident Charges
"Are we smart enough and strong enough as trade unionists to understand that we don't have to embrace the employer, that we only have to care about our own members, in order to want to be involved in programs that make the workplace function better?" Bieber asked.
Yet even Bieber, stung by the dissident charges that he is aligned with management, stressed that the UAW is still willing to use its traditional tactic of "militant action" when necessary in bargaining with the auto industry.
"We will not retreat from doing what's right for people, whether it's through some joint process or through militant action," Bieber said. "And we will not be deterred by those whose political convenience is served by questioning our integrity."
At the same time, Bieber was not afraid to compare his policies with those of the union's legendary father figure, Walter Reuther--especially now that Reuther's sole surviving brother has joined forces with the dissidents.
"In an earlier era, there were also people who called Walter Reuther the boss' boy, but Walter and his colleagues in this union as a whole did more for workers than all of his critics and all of the ideologues put together," Bieber said.
Bieber's supporters praised him for making such a strong stand against the dissident movement at the outset of the widely anticipated convention, a gathering the dissidents hope to use as a forum from which to launch a more organized opposition to the UAW leadership.
"He made a very strong defense, one that was obviously very well received by the convention," said former UAW President Douglas Fraser. "I think the leadership got off to a very strong start today."
Setback for Dissidents
Still, leaders of the dissident group dismissed Bieber's remarks.
"It's wrong as hell to gloss over the problems of this union with a glowing speech," complained Pete Kelly, president of UAW Local 160 in Warren, Mich., and a leader of the New Directions coalition. Immediately after Bieber's speech, the union's leadership dealt a sharp political setback to the dissidents.
The convention's credentials committee, dominated by Bieber supporters, denied virtually all of the charges of election fraud brought by New Directions against the union's leadership in the cases of two dissidents who ran unsuccessfully for top union offices this spring. In both cases, the dissident group is likely to challenge the election results in court.