DETROIT - United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger said Monday the union will continue to fight for federal card-check legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize, a high priority for the UAW as it continues to lose thousands of members.
In his final speech to the UAW after eight years as president, Mr. Gettelfinger also urged members to back union-friendly candidates in the November elections, saying conservative politicians showed their contempt for the UAW last year when they opposed the government's bailout of General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC.
"The contempt for the UAW was so deep that some of them were willing to let the industry collapse in hopes that they could destroy us," said Mr. Gettelfinger, who got a warm ovation from more than a thousand UAW members attending the union's quadrennial convention at Cobo Hall in Detroit. "We are leaner, yes, but stronger, wiser, and more determined."
Otherwise, he said little about his hopes for the future of the 75-year-old union, which will choose a new president this week. Longtime UAW Vice President Bob King is expected to be elected, although he is facing a challenge from workers angry about wage concessions made while Mr. Gettelfinger was UAW chief.
Under Mr. Gettelfinger, GM, Chrysler, and Ford Motor Co. workers agreed to cut wages in half to $14 an hour for new hires, and also took other pay and benefit cuts. The union leader didn't mention those concessions specifically but said the UAW did the best it could during one of the darkest times in its history. He said the union asked for concessions from its own workers as well.
"We faced these challenges and charted a course that led our great union down a path to survival," he said. "Leaner, yes, but stronger, wiser, and more determined as well."
As a result of the union's sacrifices, he said, the U.S. auto industry is again profitable and gaining U.S. market share. GM soon will be the first automaker to assemble a subcompact car in the United States, he said, a decision made because wages have become more competitive.
"There is strong evidence that the worst is behind us and the industry is clearly rebounding," he said.
He added that more buyers are considering domestic brands after Toyota Motor Co.'s safety recalls earlier this year.
He acknowledged that the union has been losing membership at an alarming rate. There are now 355,000 active UAW members, down from a high of 1.5 million in 1979. He said the union, which recently organized 2,500 workers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, continues to look for members outside the auto industry.
The card-check legislation, also called the Employee Free Choice Act, would allow workers to join a union simply by filling out a card.
Mr. Gettelfinger also said the delegates should support President Obama and Democrats in the midterm elections in November.
"We must stand with those who stood with us," he said.
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