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Photo by Chris Schramm

Learning from the Past, Improving the Future: The New UAW

s part of Customer Care News’ continuing series of

interviews with business leaders regarding employee collaboration and improving customer satisfaction and

Spring 2011

customer care, Dr. Keith Levick recently spoke with Joe Ashton,

vice president of the UAW-General Motors Corporation (GM). 12

Customer Care News

CCN: Some use the term “reinvention” when looking at

CCN: This is a critical issue for Michigan and across the country.

Chrysler] called it “rebranding” from the UAW point of view,



General Holiefield [vice president of the UAW-

and the Michigan Labor-Management Association confer-

Without giving any secrets away, what’s the response regarding

ence theme scheduled in April refers to “restoring dialog.” As

JA: I think for the first time, General Motors is taking a long look,

UAW today?

Lake Orion was scheduled to be built in Korea, and they sat down

the vice president of the UAW-GM, how do you see the

JA: I think all three statements, whether we say it’s reinvention, rebranding or restoring conversation, are all important elements in

the new UAW. I think it’s important to continue to have dialogue

with General Motors. They have taken an initiative with their new CEO Dan Akerson to continue to have ongoing dialogue with the UAW leadership. Because it’s so important for the UAW to be successful, whether it’s at Ford, Chrysler or General Motors,

like they did with Lake Orion. The vehicle that they’re building in

with us, and we worked out an agreement to have that vehicle built here. And we’re also looking at bringing trucks that normally have been built in Mexico in the past back here to be built. We can

be competitive now; our quality is second to none. We have an experienced workforce and we know that we can do a better job

than anybody else. And that’s whether it’s General Motors, Ford or Chrysler.

those companies have to be successful also, and we saw in the past

CCN: Compare if you would, what’s going on today with what

Their share of the industry is up; people are looking more at the


several months a real turnabout with Ford and General Motors.

American brands. Their quality now is competitive with any brand,

it was like 10, 15, 20 years ago. What are some of the major

and I think we are taking a step in the right direction. And I think

JA: I think one of the major differences is competition. There’s

to show the American public that not only the company, but the

there was 10 years ago. Ten years ago, our competition was with

to continue to do so, we have to have that dialogue and we have

UAW and its members also have a stake in the success of these companies.

CCN: The past few years have been a rollercoaster, especially on the Big Three, with the economy and the bankruptcies; what’s it been like for the UAW and GM?

JA: Well, needless to say, it’s been a very, very difficult period.

I think the leadership of Ron Gettelfinger and the previous Vice President Cal Rapson did a tremendous job by sitting down and negotiating an agreement to keep us out of absolute

destruction. We were heading for bankruptcy, and the bail-

so much more competition than there was 20 years ago, than

the Japanese companies. Now the new competition is going to be with the Korean companies and also the German companies,

which are coming back into the picture. There are so many

brands out there that your brand has to stand out. And I think

with the engineering that Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have been doing, it is giving us a step forward. I think the orders for General Motors’ premier electrical vehicle speak for themselves. I

think the orders far exceeded what General Motors thought and what any analyst projected, and I think that kind of technology and the quality that we are building in our vehicles is going to set us apart.

out enabled us to continue to operate. And since that’s hap-

CCN: Can you speak to customer service? And when I talk about

Motors has done something that they have never done before, or

customer but also the internal customers. In other words, every

pened, we have several success stories. We need more. General

haven’t done in many years, and that’s to decide to build a small vehicle in Michigan, in Lake Orion. That saved thousands of jobs, not only in building that vehicle but also the suppliers. And

“customer service,” I’m talking not only in terms of the external

employee is one another’s customer. Have you seen a shift or a different way of thinking regarding customer service?

that’s the thing we are looking for. We had to be innovative in

JA: There has to be. That’s why quality is so important. Quality

put more and more jobs back in the states. That’s what it’s about.

as more or less one of the main issues. We have an obligation

that agreement and we are looking to convince the companies to That’s what the upcoming negotiations are going to be about —

only to bring jobs back to Michigan, but also to bring jobs back throughout the country.

to the American public to build the best cars available. Also, to give customers the best service available, because we know now,

Spring 2011

jobs. Jobs, jobs and jobs: those are our three highest priorities. Not

used to be an issue that the company and the UAW perceived

statistically, that if you get a good vehicle and good service, seven

times out of 10 you’ll buy another vehicle from the company again.


And that’s something that we all focus on, not only the company

JA: I think we can say the relationship with GM has gotten to the

president of the UAW] or anybody else in his administration about

that started during the past few years, and that kind of communica-

but the UAW too. If you have listened to Bob King [current

quality, about being competitive, that’s what we are going to have to look at, not only in this negotiation, but also in the negotiations to come.

CCN: In looking back, comparing today versus 10 or 15 years ago,

you note that competition is one critical issue. Is there anything else that stands out to you?

JA: : I think there is no doubt that

wages are much more competitive

than they were 10 years ago. I think

the UAW took the first big step when

Photo courtesy of Joe Ashton

it took the liabil-

Joe Ashton

have an adversarial position with each other because we don’t want to end up where we were two years ago.

CCN: So, as you see things moving forward from this date on, where is the UAW headed?

JA: I think it’s going to be important for us to have the 2011 negotiations be successful for both parties, and for us to move forward. I

think that we are on the right track, that General Motors and Ford

have picked up market share and that they’re continuing to pick up market share. We want to continue to build on that success and I think the only way to accomplish that is working together.

CCN: Do you think that the negotiations in 2011 will be a little smoother and more transparent between the companies?

JA: We would hope that would be the case. We feel that General

Three. The cost

deal with on a day-to-day basis, has been much more transparent

away from the Big savings on that to the industry itself is

Motors, I can only speak for General Motors because that’s who I than they have in the past.


CCN: One of the things that I have noticed is the shrinking of

in particular were

I would imagine that has affected your membership. What is the

and GM and Ford criticized

about the legacy cost. Now, it’s something that they don’t have to

manufacturing in the State of Michigan and around the country. UAW doing to get new members?

deal with anymore and it makes them more competitive. I think in

JA: There’s no doubt that it’s had an effect on our membership. In

more vehicles. This is in the best interest of our membership, the

But Bob King has started an aggressive campaign to organize

the long run, the auto companies will be more competitive and sell Big Three and our suppliers.

CCN: I would imagine that taking liability away from the auto companies was a tough sell?

JA: It was very difficult. We have been fortunate; not to get

into the VEBA (Voluntary Employees’ Beneficiary Association) structure itself, but the agreement involved General Motors’ and

Ford’s stock, and they ended up being worth much more than we originally negotiated.

CCN: In the past, there was a perception of an adversarial rela-

Spring 2011

tion continues today. We, or the company, aren’t in the position to

ity of the medical


tionship between the UAW and the Big Three. How would you describe the relationship today?


point where it’s not just “business as usual.” There’s open dialogue

fact, this whole country has had a shrinking manufacturing base. the plants around the world…. Under Bob King’s leadership, we are going to be much more aggressive in our organizing efforts.

Also, the biggest growth in our union has been gaming. Besides

the casinos in Detroit, we organized almost 3,000 people in Foxwood in Connecticut and 3,000 people in Atlantic City.

Additionally, we have a contract in Indiana, so we have been

very aggressive. And we currently have another nine or 10 additional campaigns in the gaming industry going on. We feel that by the end of the year, we’ll have an additional 8,000 members.

People don’t realize it but the UAW was the first union to organize dealers in the United States. Dealers have never been organized,

and that’s what we started in Detroit, then Atlantic City, then Connecticut, then Indiana and now we’re looking at Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Customer Care News

CCN: I think you’re right, most people are not aware of that.

Having trained in some casinos, I know the stress the dealers experience.

JA: I don’t think people realize the amount of stress that the dealers experience. It’s a very, very difficult job; without tokes (tips), it’s

not a high paying hourly job. And I think it’s an area that we have

work in, the issues are similar and the UAW is there to protect all workers’ rights.

CCN: Protecting the rights of workers certainly comes with

challenges. This had to be a huge undertaking during this past recession.

been successful in organizing. Like I said, this year alone we have

JA: The downtrend in the economy has had a desperate effect on all

in Detroit and we expect to organize another 8,000 throughout

you’re in the union, you’re a worker. Ninety-nine percent of the

five new agreements. We’re going into negotiations again this year the country.

CCN: So, the UAW is aggressively pursuing foreign auto plants in

this country and unionizing parts of casinos. I also read that the UAW is trying to unionize European facilities.

JA: I think it’s important for us to realize that it’s a global economy; it’s a global union and global workers. And we have to take an active position and protect the welfare of those workers. If they continue

to make low wages and they continue to be treated improperly, we have an obligation, because we’re not only a union, but we’re also a

social organization. The UAW for years, starting with the Walter Reuther era, was an organization that stood up for the rights of

people — be it civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights; we were and will continue to be on the front line.

CCN: I’m guessing that many people have no idea about that part

of the UAW. They only see what they have read or seen on television, which oftentimes is extremely negative.

JA: Well, I think it’s sad because if you look back in history you will

definitely find that the UAW helped to build the middle class. The

boat that we were floating at the time — everybody was on it. It didn’t matter if you were a schoolteacher, whether you were union

of us. And it really doesn’t matter if you’re management or whether people work for a company; they don’t own it. Therefore, we’re all in the same boat. There have been significant cutbacks across the

board. And we believe that we all have to have a voice together to

turn this around and make not only the auto industry work, but

also the entire country. When the auto industry was doing well in Michigan, it didn’t only affect autoworkers; it affected schools, police, fire, teachers and suppliers. A study conducted by Cornell University showed that each job in the auto industry affects seven or eight other jobs. That’s why when there were discussions about

GM and Chrysler going down, we knew it would affect seven

million people across the United States. We have to create more jobs here, and we have to expand our presence to other types of industries.

CCN: What are some of the active things that the UAW is doing to restore, reinvent or rebrand itself?

JA: Some of the things that I already mentioned like being more involved globally, more aggressive organizing especially with the

transplants, and involvement in gaming and other industries to

expand the union. And equally important is the openness of management and the UAW to work together to make these companies and its people successful.

or whether you were non-union. It was this movement that started

CCN: If you have one piece of advice for other companies, even

down to other organizations. That’s why it’s so important to main-

two years, what would it be?

with a pension plan, which led to health plans, and that trickled

tain a union movement in this country. In most cases, people don’t

outside the auto industry, as it relates to recovering from the past

realize it’s a social voice for working men and women.

JA: I think it’s difficult just to say one thing, but I think the most

CCN: Are you alluding to the fact that workers in Germany,

we are talking about management or labor. To keep an ongoing

France, Korea, etc. face similar issues as the American workers?

JA: I think all countries are facing the same issues, including comabout it. Regardless if you’re a dealer, an autoworker, a policeman,

a fireman, a teacher; whatever industry you’re in or country you

dialogue and listen to the people in most industries that deal with the product, build the product, whether it’s the dealership that sells it or an automaker that makes it. Listen to what they have to say. It’s important to remember, in this global economy, that quality,

Spring 2011

panies that outsource work to different countries. There’s no doubt

important thing is communicating with your workforce, whether

competitive price and exceptional customer service are the three most important things that drive the consumer. CCN


Learning from the Past, Improving the Future: The New UAW  
Learning from the Past, Improving the Future: The New UAW  

A s part of Customer Care News’ continuing series of interviews with business leaders regarding employee collaboration and improving custome...