The United Auto Workers union is desperately trying to organize Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant. The union’s President, Bob King, has made it his personal mission to organize transnational companies in order to boost the declining UAW membership. Who is the man behind these “very aggressive campaigns” in the South?
Bob King was born in 1946 in Michigan. He studied political science at the University of Michigan and spent his summers working for General Motors and Chrysler plants. In 1970 he became a full-time employee at Ford in Detroit and later joined the UAW Local 600. He graduated from the University of Detroit’s law school in 1973.
In 1981, King was elected vice president of Local 600 and eventually became the local president in 1984, heading the 17,000 members. He was reelected in 1987 and became Chair of the UAW-Ford Negotiating Committee. As Local 600 president, he helped increase the union’s membership by organizing non-auto workers, such as health care workers. In 1989, King became Director of Region 1A, which is a UAW administrative unit covering several counties in Michigan; he served in this position for three three-year terms.
In 1995-1997 King was involved in the Detroit newspaper strike, a strike against union concessions, and was arrested three times for civil disobedience. In 1997 a special position in the union’s National Organizing Department was created for King; the following year he was elected vice president of the UAW, while continuing to head the Organizing Department. In this position, King helped organize workers at Kmart, casinos, as well as student teaching/research assistants. Between 2002 and 2006, the UAW gained some 60,000 new members. However, UAW representation was rejected by workers at major plants such as Nissan in Tennessee and Freightliner in North Carolina.
Finally, King ran for presidency in December of 2009; many members were concerned about his candidacy since the UAW lost over 75,000 members between 2008 and 2009 while King was vice president. Nevertheless, on June 15, 2010 King was elected president of the UAW, winning by a 97 percent margin. Union officers are required to retire by 65 years old, so the then-63-year-old King knew that he could only serve a single term, ending in 2014.
King has expressed his interest in creating a “new, more visionary, and stronger” UAW. During his first address as union head at the Center for Automotive Research Conference in 2010, King stated:
The 21st-century UAW no longer views these [Chrysler, GM and Ford] as our adversaries or enemies, but as partners in innovation and quality. Our new relationships with these employers are built upon a foundation of respect, shared goals, and a common mission.
If by “new” King means “smaller” and by “visionary” he means using the same tactics the UAW has engaged in for decades, and if by “stronger” he means “teetering of the brink of financial unsustainability,” well then, that is a job well done indeed.