Obama Loved by Auto Workers, but Other Unions Shy Away

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- It is extremely clear, as the 2012 election approaches that President Obama has the very strong support of the United Auto Workers.

It is safe to say, however, that the rest of the U.S. labor movement is not nearly so committed.
President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak tour the GM Orion Assembly Plant on Friday to promote a new free trade agreement between the two countries.

Even as the UAW regularly sings Obama's praises, other unions, including the International Association of Machinists, are making plans to not attend the 2012 Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C. for an assortment of reasons that include frustration with the president and the feeling that there's an antilabor climate in North Carolina.

Recent approval of the free trade agreement with Korea only exacerbated the differences between the UAW and the bulk of the labor movement.

About a dozen building trades unions have said they will skip the convention for various reasons, while the IAM won't be going to Charlotte because its own convention will take place simultaneously in Toronto. The union will, however, pay for members who attend as delegates, said president Tom Buffenbarger, in an interview with TheStreet. The union has 700,000 members including 400,000 active members, about 100,000 of whom work in the aerospace industry.

Told by a reporter that Obama has backed labor in various instances, such as enabling a favorable change in procedures for unionization elections under the Railway Labor Act, Buffenbarger responded: "He did make changes there -- we applauded him for those and did so publicly. But I don't know that he's been a friend to labor."

In the past month, as it reached tentative contract agreements with each of the Detroit Three, the UAW has repeatedly cited the president's role.

"Two years ago, GM ( GM) and Chrysler were hanging by a thread when President Obama stepped in and invested federal funds to help turn the companies and the U.S. auto industry around," UAW Bob King said last month, in announcing a tentative agreement with GM.

This week, the union announced a tentative deal with Chrysler. "Make no mistake, (government) loans, supported by President Obama, provided the foundation for the company's turnaround," said UAW Vice President General Holiefield.

On Thursday, the UAW once again praised Obama, this time for backing the free trade agreement with South Korea. "The automotive provisions of the agreement were substantially renegotiated by the Obama administration to address the concerns the union had with the original FTA, negotiated in 2007 by the Bush administration," the union said, in a press release.

The U.S. auto industry is also on board with the deal, under which both countries will reduce and then eliminate automotive tariffs over five years. The deal "will open new opportunities for Ford ( F) to reach even more Korean customers by selling them more American-made Focuses, Tauruses, Mustangs, Escapes and Explorers, among other cars and trucks," said CEO Alan Mulally, in a prepared statement.

To celebrate passage of the agreement, Obama visited a GM plant in Orion Township, Mich. on Friday joined by the president of South Korea.

Obama seems to find comfort in the auto industry. In June, he visited a Chrysler plant in Toledo, Ohio , and The Toledo Blade reported that a 14-year worker at Chrysler's Toledo Assembly complex would appear in a video promoting Obama's re-election. "I pretty much spoke from the heart," the worker told the newspaper.

Union love for Obama and the trade agreement does not flow far from the auto plants, however.

"The UAW supports the trade agreement because they are trying to repay the president for his help in saving the auto industry," Buffenbarger said, in a recent speech at the IAM aerospace convention in Nashville, Tenn. "But the agreement is not just about cars," he said. "It's not cars the Koreans want: It's aerospace. This is a way to steal the last great industry in America. I don't know who sells the president on these things."

Owen Herrnstadt, director of the IAM's trade and globalization department, said South Korea has long been involved in seeking transfer of aerospace production. At the start of the decade, when Boeing ( BA) sold 40 F15 fighters to South Korea, the deal required that South Korean workers be involved in aircraft parts manufacturing and sub-assembly.

For its part, Boeing said it supports the trade agreement, primarily because expanding global trade leads to more demand for aircraft.

"It's no secret that South Korea has a pretty sophisticated aerospace industry," Herrnstadt said. "Any agreement that makes it easier for U.S. aerospace companies to transfer production to South Korea, particularly in aerospace, will ultimately be very harmful to U.S. aerospace workers." The IAM also objects to the Korea agreement because it represents workers in various auto industry sectors.

Meanwhile, the United Steelworkers, the largest industrial union with about 850,000 active members and a long history of battling trade agreements, has a mixed but generally favorable view of the Obama presidency.

"Every time a trade agreement comes through, more manufacturers are closed and more American jobs are lost," said union spokesman Wayne Ranick. But despite the Korea agreement, he said, generally "President Obama has been supportive of our efforts to support trade laws."

In particular, in 2009, Obama backed the union in a trade case it filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission, and imposed a tariff as high as 35% on tires imported from China. "That stopped China from flooding the market with unfairly priced passenger car tires and light truck tires, and enabled some tire companies to recall workers," Ranick said.

The union, with members clustered in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, worked hard for Obama in the 2008 election and feels the president listens to its views. "We're hoping to see more from him, but we are generally supportive," Ranick said.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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