Scott Adams has seen the U.S. auto industry undergo sweeping changes since he began his career at Ford Motor Co.’s Buffalo Stamping Plant in the Town of Hamburg in 1972.
He has ascended the leadership of the United Auto Workers, and in 2010, the Orchard Park resident was named director of Amherst-based Region 9. His territory encompasses 178 labor contracts in most of New York State and Pennsylvania, and all of New Jersey.
Nationally, the UAW’s membership is far below its historic high of 1.5 million in 1979, but the total has been climbing in recent years, back to about 400,000. While the UAW is best known for representing auto workers, its members include everyone from nurses and higher education employees, to municipal workers and casino workers.
Adams, 60, reflected on the state of organized labor in his region and on unions’ relationship with employers:
Q: Is it harder for the UAW to represent workers from a broader collection of industries?
A: The expertise needed to represent certainly becomes a little more challenging. But at the end of the day, we’re here to bargain contracts. That’s what we do for a living. And negotiations, I don’t care if you’re going to do it for manufacturing, for nurses, it’s pretty much the same technique. But to be very honest, it was more challenging, because when you go from private sector to public sector, the laws are different. The training for reps was even more extensive.
Q: What are the main challenges facing organized labor?
A: We don’t have a fair playing field to organize. That’s always been an issue. Under the current system of organizing, if you have to go to an NLRB election, there’s a 45-day wait period when you file for a petition. And in that 45-day period, normally what happens is, a company or an employer, if they choose not to want their employees to be part of the collective-bargaining process, will throw an anti-campaign. That anti-campaign is well-financed, and usually they are professionals at the highest level that are good at what they do, to put that campaign against the organizing of any company or any facility that we would get involved with. … They’re allowed to have a closed meeting with their entire workforce, where we don’t have access to that, where we can sit down and speak to everybody, at the same time.
Q: How do you see the labor-management climate nowadays?
A: I see it as good. As a matter of fact, I’m extremely proud about GM, Ford and Chrysler, in particular in our area at Ford and General Motors, I think we have an unbelievable relationship. It’s a very professional relationship. What has transpired at GM Powertrain (in the Town of Tonawanda) is a perfect example of what we’re talking about. That was a facility that was at one point, almost five years ago, was down to about 560 people. … We had the opportunity to do what we did in national negotiations, and kind of took a different position with the corporation.
Let’s face it, we all know what happened with General Motors. We took a hit, they went bankrupt, but at the same time, it gave us an opportunity to sit down and truly work from the middle out, understanding what the concerns were of that corporation to survive, and they understood exactly what we needed to continue to create a quality of life for our members. And that was the start of, in my opinion, a very great relationship with the plant manager at Powertrain, Steve Finch.
Q: How about the Ford stamping plant?
A: That plant was also in the same boat as Powertrain, and I don’t mean bankruptcy, I mean product line. … We put together a team concept that actually the company bought into. We accepted it, they accepted it, and it actually gave us an opportunity to hang on, and that’s exactly what happened the first time. Now we’ve gone from hanging on to, in my opinion, a very good working relationship to the point where we’re being rewarded with new products. So that plant is going to go from approximately 520 people to well over a thousand, and that’s going to happen through the next year and a half.
Q: What is your outlook for GM’s Lockport plant?
A: I have a positive feeling that the local committee and the workforce have done all the right things, with their quality levels and their safety. … To be quite frank, we have a good relationship with (plant manager) Pat Curtis. I have the same feelings about him as I do Steve Finch and (plant manager) Dave Buzo at Ford. He’s willing to work with us, we’re willing to work with them. When you’re in that mindset, there isn’t anything you can’t do.
Q: What do you see as the UAW’s role in keeping companies viable?
A: When you have a collective-bargaining agreement in place, it makes it easier not only for the workers to understand what the rules are, but it also makes it easier for the employer. Everything is equally applied, and I think that’s a huge piece that makes us tick. … We’ve been involved in Atlantic City (N.J.) for about six years. We represent three of the casinos there. We have five contracts out of the three casinos. We’ve encouraged businesses, other unions, to bring their conventions to those type of casinos. When Hurricane Sandy hit, they lost 93 conventions. We had a few conferences scheduled in there – one of them was General Motors, one of them was my own conference out of Region 9, a leadership conference – and we refused to cancel them.
Q: Critics of unions say they were necessary for a time but have outlived their usefulness. How do you respond?
A: I obviously disagree. I think now more than ever unions are needed. And I think a perfect example of that is the outcry not only from the general public, but the fast-food workers. … We’re talking about millions of people every day that truly can’t even put meals on the table with what they’re being paid. No health care, no extras. In certain cases, they’re just barely making above minimum wage, which is, oh, by the way, below the poverty level. I think that’s a perfect example of where a labor union or labor unions can certainly help.
I think we had the biggest impact when unions were formed, if you go back even to the mines, how desperately needed they were, all the way up to where we had our strong moments in history. And then there was a dark period that we went through. But I think people now see a need more than ever to collectively bargain, to have one, solid voice.