ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Joining us from Detroit is Bob King, who's the president of the United Auto Workers. Welcome to the program and congratulations on the contract being approved.
BOB KING: Thank you very much, Robert.
SIEGEL: Is it fair to say that with this contract and with the two-tier wage system that the auto workers have concluded that the number of auto worker jobs in the U.S. is more important than the pay that the individual auto worker receives?
KING: Well, it's a balance. You know, pay is important. Getting people to middle-class standards is important but - and the most important thing for all workers whether the new workers or the, you know, longer-term workers is that they have long-term security, and they have a job that they know is going to last, and they can grow in their pay and security in that job. And we're really proud that, you know, really members continue to sacrifice to bring jobs back in the country for their own security but also to hire 20,000 new people. It's possible to be hired with all the product investment coming in.
SIEGEL: New workers will get just over $15 an hour when they start. Is that middle-class security?
KING: No. You know, it's barely is probably the most accurate answer. They'll grow to 19, 28, they've got, you know, good benefits, so it's a process.
SIEGEL: But what do you say to second tier younger auto workers who complain, as some did in a recent online story by labornotes.org, that the only solidarity you now find among auto workers is first tier workers with first tier workers and second tier workers with second tier workers?
KING: You know, I think that's absolutely not true. I think, you know, I was at Orion, which has large number of tier twos. They were very appreciative of the raise they got, of the support they had. You know, traditional workers agreed to take no wage so that we could put all the money that we did in wages went to the entry level. And entry level is in the same profit-sharing plan, so they're paid at an equal rate in the profit-sharing plan with traditional. You know, we had that system at John Deere for three contracts now. Every contract we've given more to the newer workers than the traditional workers. So there's a lot of solidarity still.
SIEGEL: Is 62 percent a satisfying majority for approval of a big contract agreement.
KING: Well, in a public election, that's 2-to-1. That would be a landslide, you know? We're used to getting higher numbers than that. I think the 2009 concessions in Ford - the ones in February, we had, like, an 80 percent vote.
SIEGEL: Well, down from 80 to 62 would be worrying, wouldn't it?
KING: Well, you know, we knew that we were breaking new ground in a lot of ways in this contract, so we're real happy with the 62 percent. A 2-to-1 majority in any election is a strong majority.
SIEGEL: Steven Rattner, who helped engineer the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies for the Obama administration, wrote recently in The New York Times that a GM worker in the U.S. cost the company, with benefits, $56 an hour. A GM worker in Mexico cost the company $7 an hour. And the headline of Rattner's column said it all: Let's admit it, globalization has losers. Even if Mexican living standards double, how can American auto workers ever compete with that level of wage?
KING: Well, it's really - it's why we're involved. We've got, you know, UAW is paying for organizers down in Mexico right now. Compare Mexico and Korea. UAW helped support the organizing of the Korean unions 15, 20 years ago. They're strong independent unions. They brought their total wage and benefit package very close to ours so we can compete with them. That could happen in Mexico. If there were free independent unions in Mexico, you'd see dramatically improved wages and benefits.
SIEGEL: Mr. King, long before you became president of the UAW, you were often involved in protests, in supporting labor globally. You've been arrested several times in some pro-labor protests. Right now, the big Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that are going on, do you support them and do you understand what they're asking?
KING: Oh, yeah. I support them strongly. I'm so happy to see young people getting involved and engaged. And, you know, I believe the only thing that's ever really brought positive change to the world is nonviolent direct action, and that's what the Occupy Wall Street is about. That's how, you know, we got a labor movement. That's how we got union rights. I love the Flint Sit-Down story. That was a nonviolent direct action by UAW members against the largest corporation in the world. Everybody said they cannot win and they did win.
SIEGEL: They wanted to represent the workers.
KING: That's right. They wanted a contract and they got it. And so...
SIEGEL: Are you getting as clear a message out of Occupy Wall Street as to what they want?
KING: You know, I think the clear message your getting is the anger and frustration with an economic system that's very, very unfair, and really a political system that is not producing fairness and justice. People are really frustrated that there's this growing disparity between the wealthiest in society and everybody else. And they see, really, a destruction of the middle class, and so I think it's a good thing for America.
SIEGEL: Well, Mr. King, thanks a lot for talking with us.
KING: Hey, thank you very much.
SIEGEL: It's Bob King, who is the president of the United Auto Workers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.