Timothy Duperron, chief operating officer for Focus: Hope, is a more-than-decent guy who worked for the Ford Motor Co. for decades, starting at the bottom and rising into management. He was still on the lower rungs and hadn't yet earned a college degree when he was given an electrician's apprentice to supervise named Bob King. Duperron was soon scratching his head.
King, it turned out, was a veteran who had earned his law degree. This was in the early 1970s. Why in the world, his boss asked, was he fooling around with a blue-collar job at Ford?
"Because I want to be the next Walter Reuther," his apprentice told him. Tim remembered that last week, when King got Reuther's old job, winning election as president during the United Auto Workers convention in Detroit.
"I was very happy to see his dream come true," said Duperron, who nowadays works long hours to give poor young men and women a shot at having a chance to also achieve their dreams.
But Duperron may have spoken too soon. Yes, Bob King is now the UAW's president. But it is far from clear that he is the next Walter Reuther, or even another Doug Fraser or Leonard Woodcock.
Nor do we know if he can succeed in growing his union — or even saving it from further decline, or even collapse.
But what is clear is that autoworkers, and perhaps the entire union movement, never needed another Reuther so much as now.
The UAW, even more so than the entire industry, is on the ropes, with its membership, and its political clout, in steep decline.
Forty years ago last month, the union was near its peak membership of 1.6 million, when Reuther, his wife Mae, and a couple pilots and friends climbed into a chartered Lear Jet for a weekend at the UAW's recreation complex up north at Black Lake.
Reuther, who was proud to be the lowest-paid union president in the nation, had built the UAW into an economic and political force that had muscled the U.S autoworker into the nation's middle class.
He had been so successful that he was able to spend time helping other unions, such as Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers, and marching for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr.
Teachers and other union members got benefits modeled on those that the UAW had literally shed blood to win. Reuther himself had been beaten up at the Battle of the Overpass and taken a shotgun blast through his own kitchen window.
But by 1970, the workers who elected him again and again had arrived — although that night, sadly, Walter never would. His pilot missed the runaway, and everyone on board was killed.
The years that followed saw stability, then crisis and accelerating decline. In recent years, the UAW has given up benefits and granted concessions Reuther would never have dreamed possible.
The union took over responsibility for retiree health care with a trust set up by the employers — a fund most experts think is undercapitalized. Worse, they agreed to a new two-tier wage scale that, if kept in place, means any new autoworkers will never reach the middle class – not that there have been many new hires.
Today, the union Walter built has barely 355,000 members, only about a third of whom work for what aren't really the Big Three anymore. Another third work for suppliers and other auxiliary companies, and the rest aren't in the auto industry at all.
Today, non-automotive workers are where the union sees its future. One might have thought the UAW might make a run at going after the so-called "transplant" Honda and Toyota factories, most of which are in the South. But they haven't been pushing that.
Instead, in interviews this week, King said the UAW's best shot at "really high growth" lay in organizing casino workers nationwide, and in higher education, such as part-time faculty members. And that is where Bob King sees the union future — outside the auto industry.
When I heard that, it sounded desperate. It reminded me of Roger Smith's disastrous attempts to "diversify" General Motors in the 1980s, with the result that the company lost focus, money and a big share of the market.
But Harley Shaiken, a leading labor economist, is cautiously optimistic. He thinks diversifying may help the union gain focus, not lose it. "I think Bob King is a very capable, even visionary leader," he told me. "These have been troubling times, but I think it is a moment of real possibility for the UAW," he said, and he should know.
He's a Detroit native and a professor at the University of California-Berkeley with a national reputation; President Obama is said to have seriously considered him for secretary of labor.
"What do state workers in Lansing have in common with autoworkers in Ohio? They both want good, stable wages and benefits," Shaiken said. In many ways, he added, both the auto industry and its unions have been going through a period reminiscent of the Great Depression, if not as severe. The conventional wisdom about union weakness was wrong then, he said, and could be wrong now.
Shaiken thinks the UAW may even find a way to be successful organizing the "transplant" factories, if they try. "The transplants are going to be squeezed in unexpected ways by the global economy. They can no longer count on the safety valve of continued growth."
Shaiken was quick to add that there's no guarantee the UAW will be successful. One drawback that Bob King faces is that he is already 63, the same age Reuther was the night he died.
That means that under UAW rules, King will be limited to a single four-year term, not a lot of time to figure out how to prosper in an era of independent contractors and global markets.
Doug Fraser was the last UAW president to have known Reuther well. Shortly before he died in 2008, I asked Fraser what Walter Reuther would have done, faced with today's problems.
He said nobody could know. But he said he knew that Walter would have been doing whatever he could, as creatively as he could, for the working man. Today, it would be good for everyone who cares about unions — or maybe just wants to make a decent living — if somehow it turns out there's more than a little Reuther in Bob King.
Not out of the woods yet: Michigan college and university students are breathing a sigh of relief as tuition is being announced for the next year. Hikes are far less than expected.
Eastern Michigan actually didn't raise tuition at all. The University of Michigan upped theirs a mere 1.5 percent; Michigan State boosted tuition by a mere 2.5 percent for home-state undergrads. There is, however, some fine print: All this depends on sensible and rational behavior on the part of the Michigan Legislature in balancing next year's budget without further attacking higher education. Based on the numbers I see and the personalities involved, that's anything but a safe assumption. Up in Flint, Mott Community College is considering an increase of 11.7 percent. They may, sadly, be more realistic than the rest.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]