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Not Your Father's UAW

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The ground shook a bit in Michigan last week, and it had nothing to do with the weather or the interesting results of a state primary election.

The speech of brand-new president of the UAW, Bob King, at the 45th annual Center for Automotive Research (CAR) Management Briefing Seminar at Traverse City sent tremors down I-75, right through Tennessee and down into Alabama and off to Juarez, too.

Bob didn't give an ordinary speech -- and he certainly didn't have an ordinary message. Yes, he talked about the UAW's gratitude to the Obama Administration for saving the auto industry, its continuing commitment to the middle class, and to its core mission to protect the interests of its members.

All predictable.

The quakes began when he said: "The UAW of the 21st Century must be fundamentally and radically different from the UAW of the 20th Century. The 20th-Century UAW tried to find ways to achieve job security, such as job banks, that in the end did not achieve the results we were seeking. The 21st-Century UAW knows the only true path to job security is by producing the best quality product, the safest product and the longest lasting product at the best price."

King candidly acknowledged the union's past mistakes: fighting clean air efforts; opposing global trade; negotiating contracts that created adversarial relationships between union and management and created "a litigious and time-consuming grievance culture."

Wow.

So what does King's focus mean for the future of American manufacturing?

If King's vision is fully realized, the UAW becomes the auto industry's key partner in global competitiveness and stellar quality, and not the anchor that pulls a company under because of inflexibility and costs. The UAW becomes the trainer and the broker of the world's greatest talent for manufacturing the most technologically complex mass-produced product in the world.

Indeed, instead of being blamed for chasing investment away from industrial states, the UAW may become the place to turn to ensure a company's success. That would be a welcome paradigm shift.

In Dundee, Michigan, the UAW has negotiated just such a contract. The Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance is producing the new engine for the Fiat 500. To ensure maximum flexibility, the UAW contract has only one job classification. The objective of the plant - and of the new Chrysler -- is to ensure that "anyone can do any job, anywhere, anytime." The team concept is deployed on the floor of the new plant. The observer can't tell which worker belongs to management and which worker is a member of the union. Every person hired in this factory has a college degree or technical certification.

Partnership. Quality. Competitiveness. Flexibility. Teamwork. Innovation. Productivity. Continuous cost-savings. Respect.

These are the words of the new UAW and the new auto industry - and the words of a hopeful future for advanced manufacturing jobs in America.