Three weeks ago, LSA professor Bob King, the former president of the United Auto Workers, heard his phone buzz. When he picked it up, he saw an incoming call from his longtime friend Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., the liberal firebrand and former Democratic presidential candidate. Sanders asked if King would speak at the 2020 Democratic National Convention the upcoming week to nominate him for president. It was an offer King couldn’t pass up.
“He personally called me,” said King, who teaches social theory and practice in the Residential College. “I told him I’d be honored to do it. I thought there might be some other people who would be better. But he said, ‘No, I’d like you to do it.’”
Given their shared history fighting for workers’ rights, it made sense that Sanders picked King to nominate him at the convention. While nominating the senator, King praised Sanders, calling him a “great champion of the working class.”
King grew up in the Midwest, right in the middle of the nation’s automotive capital. But it wasn’t until college that King found himself working part-time summer jobs in auto factories in Metro Detroit. He strapped on steel-toed boots every day to head to work and got to know his blue-collar coworkers. Through conversations with his colleagues, King learned about the injustices faced by middle-class workers and the need for strong labor unions to organize employees.
“A lot of the people I worked with didn’t have college educations or anything, but they were in many ways wiser, smarter than people who had a greater form of (education),” King said. “And then watching the struggles over the years, seeing what it took to really make change. It’s all played a role (in my life).”
King completed two years of study at Holy Cross College in Indiana before transferring to the University of Michigan, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science. It was at Holy Cross, however, that King said he took classes that — like his conversations in the auto plant — helped to cement the core beliefs that guided him through his later work in the labor movement.
“I took a French course by a Jesuit who really taught (me) … the way you have value in life is you raise human dignity and lessen human suffering,” King said. “And at the same time, I was taking a theology course from a person who believes in liberation theology and (in) the importance of caring about others. Life was about both kinds of ideas.”
Those experiences in the classroom and from his summer jobs stuck with King after graduation as he joined the workforce. In 1970, he took on a full-time job at Ford’s River Rouge Complex while completing a law degree at the University of Detroit Mercy. While working at the plant, he also joined a labor union — the United Auto Workers union Local 600 — and became president in 1984.
King served two terms as president, chairing the UAW-Ford Negotiating Committee during his second term. Both positions allowed him to organize and mobilize union workers in the area to fight for their rights.
In 1989, King became director of Region 1A, an administrative unit of UAW encompassing several counties across Michigan. He served three terms in this role, which he said was one of the most rewarding experiences of his career.
“In that whole time, it was always a core part of what I believed — getting members more involved and getting into it — demonstrations, rallies, striking for recognition (in) places that weren’t organized yet,” King said.
Nine years after becoming the regional director, King was elected vice president of UAW. At the time, he was still heading their National Organizing Department, a position he had been appointed to the year prior. During his tenure as vice president, King helped to attract more than 60,000 new members in the first eight years.
But when the Great Recession hit in 2008, the UAW lost more than 75,000 members as major auto companies like General Motors, Chrysler and Ford either went into or were threatened with bankruptcy and had to lay off thousands of workers. King said the experience tested his leadership.
“Everybody had to be part of the plan. It was a very collaborative effort which did say something,” King said. “… (But) if the members didn’t have a union, the company would have just unilaterally made changes (and) would not have had to step up and be transparent about what every stakeholder was doing.”
“The loudest part of the discussions and negotiations were getting commitments from the companies to agree that with the turnaround, massive investments would go into UAW facilities in the United States. We kept a lot of jobs in our country (and) saved communities,” King added.
After pushing through the financial crisis, King became UAW president. King’s predecessor, Ron Gettelfinger, told The New York Times in an interview he was thrilled to see King take over his position.
“There is no question in my mind Bob King will be the right person to lead this union forward,” Gettelfinger said. “He is relentless and tenacious. Bob will move forward an agenda that will benefit all of our union, and he is a great negotiator.”
King described being UAW president as the capstone of his union career, helping build up the international network of workers from the Big Three and pushing for increased worker protections.
“The UAW members have a lot of courage, a lot of fight, so representing them was such an honor,” King said.
After serving decades in the UAW, King decided to shift gears and inspire the next generation of the movement by becoming a lecturer at the University. He also took on leading roles in a number of organizations, including the Lecturer’s Employee Organization, One University Campaign and the student-led Climate Action Movement.
“I really appreciate and enjoy the classes I’ve done at the University of Michigan and continuing to do classes and workshops within the labor movement,” King said. “Getting the opportunity to sit down with students and/or sit down with workers and talk about important issues (and) have discussions where we’re all learning from each other — that’s really fantastic.”
King said he hopes his work helps further the labor movement.
“I hope that in working with students and working with unions in the area that we really do build up a movement that will demand and achieve a much, much more fairer society,” King said.
LSA senior Amytess Girgis spoke to The Daily about her experiences with King while working with him on both the One University Campaign and LEO. She said he stayed committed to cultivating an atmosphere where both students and school administrators felt heard and tried to push for change.
“Every time we go into these meetings (with administrators), we’re told that our ideas are great but it wouldn’t work because of X reason,” Girgis said. “And the fact that someone like Bob continues to come to the table and says, ‘No, this will work. You just need to rearrange your priorities and values in order to put your money where your mouth is.’ The fact that he’s continually able to do that really encourages us to be more confident in what we know is right.”
Whether speaking to millions of viewers across the nation, a room of labor union organizers or a classroom of two dozen people, King has dedicated his life to furthering the fight for workers’ rights.
“In some ways, I’ve always been a movement builder,” King said. “I really fully understand that you never get change if you don’t build the grassroots movement that developed over a number of years.”
Daily Staff Reporter Julia Forrest can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.