Bunch: Middle class in danger as unions lose political powerWritten by Justin R. Kalmes | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Oscar Bunch has experienced the UAW’s highlights, lowlights and everything in between during his 50 years as a union member.
Come Dec. 23, Bunch will retire from his post as president of Local 14, a position he has held since 1978.
Though the union’s strength has floundered as domestic automobile manufacturers face stiffer competition from foreign makers, Bunch said he is pleased with the shape he is leaving Local 14 in. He cited General Motors’ announcement earlier this year that it would invest $504 million in the Toledo Powertrain Plant to build six-speed transmissions, the financial shape of Local 14 and the strong relationship between the UAW and GM management as some of the greatest accomplishments during his presidency.
“It’s been a trying job, but I’ve enjoyed it,” Bunch said.
Bunch, 76, met with Toledo Free Press Sept. 11 to discuss the shape of the unions, the automotive industry and his retirement.
Toledo Free Press: How has the auto industry changed in Toledo in the past 50 years?
Oscar Bunch: Working and getting along with management at GM; that has changed. We signed a joint commitment in 1983 to work together and do things different.
Both sides have stuck to that and it’s made a big difference in Toledo in the attitude of the people.
Before, it wasn’t good at all. We came out of negotiations after shaking hands only to find ourselves right back where we were within a month or so.
The half-billion-dollar project at the Powertrain plant — that was because of the union/management relationship.
TFP: Does it concern you that consumers are shifting toward foreign brands?
OB: At one time, the domestics had the market here. General Motors had 52 percent of the market. When the foreigners came, the market started to fall apart. We got into a world market. Now, GM has 24 percent of the market.
It’s a major concern because the auto industry in this country is our base. If you talk to the young people, it’s perceived among them that the Japanese or the Asians make a better product, which is not true.
TFP: How has the union changed since when you first started with the UAW?
OB: Back then, we had 1.8 million members. Today, we’re down to a little over 600,000. General Motors had 500,000 members; now it is less than 100,000. It’s going to continue to shrink unless General Motors can pick the market share back up somewhat. It’s pretty hard to downsize yourself into success.
TFP: What does the future look like for the UAW?
OB: We’ll continue to downsize, but sooner or later it’s going to come back because in this country, our market is 17 million vehicles. But sooner or later, we’re not going to have the income to purchase these vehicles. That’s when it’s really going to change because the American people are going to realize that you have to have income. You can’t continue to cut wages and still have the 17 million-unit market.
The unions will come back then if it affects enough people. For some reason, people are not mad and that just shocks me. There’s no jobs and low wages out there. People today go out there and get an $8 an hour job and think it’s a good job.
TFP: Is the union as strong as it once was?
OB: No, definitely not, because they’ve lost power. They’ve lost membership and they’ve lost power. They’ve lost their political power. The unions in this country had a lot of political clout. Losing members now, that clout is going away. Certainly, much of the economy is run on politics.
TFP: Will the UAW ever be the force it once was?
OB: I think so. When people get down low enough, I think that’s going to happen. I think the people are going to rebel and say, “We’ve got to have a decent wage in this country.” We can’t continue to let the middle class just disappear because the unions build the middle class in this country.
TFP: Are you concerned that this next generation of workers will not see the wages and benefits you and your peers did as union workers?
OB: Every generation has gained in the standard of living and that’s stopped. That’s sad, but that’s going to stop because of the labor unions downsizing. I think this is the first generation coming along now that’s not going to do better than their parents did.
My generation came along at the right time because everything just worked out. That’s one reason people in this country are not raising enough hell because people in my generation have far exceeded the standard of living they ever thought they would achieve.
TFP: Do you think companies across the country are trying to do away with unions?
OB: That’s what they’re trying to do — is get away from the unions. The biggest challenge is trying to organize. The laws have changed so much since I was in my young days. It’s hard to get out and organize because people are afraid to step forward to join a union. Most people want a union, but they’re afraid because their employer discharges them if they find out they’re trying to organize.
TFP: What has your experience been like, working with the city and county?
OB: Lucas County and the City of Toledo recognize that they have got to keep industrial jobs here if they’re going to have a tax base. They’ve worked hard with us to try to make that happen.
TFP: Did you ever imagine you would remain president of Local 14 for so long?
OB: No. I’ve been fortunate. My last election I was 75 years old. To get elected at 75 is just unheard of especially when you’re downsizing and people are losing jobs.
TFP: What do you plan on doing once you retire?
OB: Driving my wife crazy, probably. I’m on a number of boards and I will stay on them for a while until I’m useless.
Local 14 event to honor Oscar Bunch
Oscar Bunch, president of Local 14, will retire Dec. 23. To honor him, members of Local 14 will host a “Roast and Toast” from 5 to 11 p.m. Oct. 7 at the SeaGate Convention Centre. For tickets, contact the Local 14 union hall at (419) 473-2854.