Ron Gettelfinger

On Wednesday, March 5, HBS welcomed a different sort of guest to campus. Ron Gettelfinger, President of the UAW, spoke before a standing room only crowd in Hawes Hall. Gettelfinger cautioned against the dangers of losing American jobs overseas and called for stronger policies to rebuild U.S. manufacturing capabilities. Unions and management, he argued, should strive for partnerships to increase productivity, safety, and quality.

“Manufacturing today is at its lowest level in 40 years. What is the policy to protect jobs in the United States?” Gettelfinger asked. Questioning the haste to sign free trade agreements, Gettelfinger called for greater protection for workers and stricter standards on foreign labor. During the speech, Gettelfinger passed out a picture from the New York Times of President Bush giving a speech at a factory in St. Louis. The backdrop read “Strengthening America’s Economy.” “Look carefully at the boxes in the background. The part that’s taped over says “Made in China,” Gettelfinger pointed out.

“The problem isn’t just with manufacturing, either. It’s also with white collar jobs.” Gettelfinger explained. He cited examples of engineering and information technology work that would cost companies $100 an hour in America but only $20 an hour in India. “America will lose 3.3 million white collar jobs to low wage countries by 2015, representing $136 billion in lost wages,” Gettelfinger said.

Countering traditional notions about unions, Gettelfinger emphasized examples of partnerships with business and value-creation opportunities.

“Ninety-eight percent of our negotiations end without confrontation. If there is a strike, both parties have failed,” Gettelfinger said. He cited examples of joint efforts to improve workplace safety and productivity. Gettelfinger talked about the successful employee-led turnaround of

Visteon’s glass business. “When Visteon wanted to sell off its glass business, they couldn’t give it away. They took a $345 million write-off,” Gettelfinger continued, “The workers turned it around and made it profitable. When you empower workers, this is what you can accomplish.”

What is the future of unions? Addressing declining union membership, Gettelfinger called for laws to allow workers who want to join unions the opportunity to do so. “Fifty-nine percent of workers would join a union if given the choice…How much courage would it take for you to come to work with a pro-union badge, knowing you could be fired or face a hostile work environment?” Gettelfinger also sees stronger partnerships with business leaders. “We need checks and balances. And it’s not all negative–unions add a lot of value. We force them (employers) to focus on diversity, safety, and quality.”

Gettelfinger gave some parting advice on negotiating strategies. “Trust is the most important thing you have,” Gettelfinger said, “If you commit to something, you had better make sure you can sell it to your membership.” He stressed the difficulty of conducting real-world negotiations, when workers with families have their jobs on the line. In spite of these difficulties, Gettelfinger emphasized, “Negotiations is about the art of the possible, not the impossible.”