By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT (Reuters) - The United Auto Workers union opened a four-day convention on Monday where 1,100 members will select a new president and decide whether to approve the first dues increase since 1967.
Dennis Williams, the union's 61-year-old secretary-treasurer, is expected to be elected president on Wednesday. He was selected last November by union leaders to head a slate of officers for four-year terms.
While Gary Walkowicz, a union official at a Ford Motor Co plant in Dearborn, Michigan, opposes Williams on the ballot, Williams is expected to win easily. Walkowicz four years ago ran against Bob King, the UAW's outgoing president, and received only a handful of votes.
Williams was an early supporter of President Barack Obama and expects to solidify the union's ties with the White House and the Democratic Party, which are already strong.
Williams' term may be difficult as he continues the effort to organize foreign automakers at auto plants in the U.S. South, where anti-union politicians and organizations are strong. Williams also faces contract negotiations with the three big U.S. automakers, which are expected to be the most contentious in years. The current deals expire in September 2015.
UAW membership under King gained 10 percent to 391,415, but that is still down 40 percent from 654,657 a decade ago, and well off the peak of nearly 1.5 million members in 1979. King said organizing foreign automaker plants is essential to the UAW's viability.
With membership over the long term trending downward, the UAW's "strike fund," which helps support striking workers, has slipped to about $600,000 from more than $1 billion just a few years ago. That is why the UAW is asking delegates to approve a dues increase to 2-1/2 hours of each worker's regular pay each month from two hours per month.
King, who served as president for four years, has said that without a vital strike fund, corporations will force more confrontations.
During the economic downturn that led to the bankruptcies of both General Motors Corp, now General Motors Co, and Chrysler, now owned by Italy's Fiat SpA, the union accepted several concessionary measures, including the establishment of a two-tiered wage scale.
Now that GM, Ford and Chrysler are profitable, UAW members want an end to the two-tier wage structure and raises for veteran workers. Newer workers earn $15.78 an hour while veteran workers make about $28 per hour.
Williams has said he wants to end the two-tiered scale, but will face opposition from the U.S. automakers, who have used it to remain competitive with the American plants of foreign rivals.
"When the companies were hurting, we made sacrifices," said Percy Johnson, a union delegate from GM's last remaining Detroit plant. "Now that the companies are making money, we should get rid of this second tier."
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)