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UAW flip-flops on Marines snub

By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- The United Auto Workers union waved a white flag Monday in its parking skirmish with neighboring reservists, but the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines are not accepting surrender.

Facing intense criticism, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger reversed his decision to ban Marine Corps reservists driving foreign cars or displaying pro-President Bush bumper stickers from parking at the union's Solidarity House headquarters in Detroit.

"I made the wrong call on the parking issue, and I have notified the Marine Corps that all reservists are welcome to park at Solidarity House as they have for the past 10 years," Gettelfinger said in a statement.

Wounded by what they consider an unpatriotic ambush, the Marines rejected the union's olive branch and secured an alternative parking lot.

"I talked to Ron; I let him know that I understand he has rescinded his decision," said Lt. Col. Joe Rutledge, a top-ranking officer at the reserve infantry rifle battalion. "However, I've made my decision -- either you support the Marines or you don't."

The Detroit News reported the controversy Sunday.

The UAW has a longstanding policy prohibiting nonunion-made vehicles from the parking lots at its plants and meeting halls.

Until last week, the union made an exception for the Marines who parked at Solidarity House on the weekends. The battalion's headquarters is nearby on East Jefferson.

While both sides say the dispute has been overblown, it revealed the depths of the UAW's antipathy toward the Bush administration and its concern over the rise of foreign automakers in the U.S. market.

Gettelfinger and other top UAW International officials say Bush is blatantly anti-labor and has opposed measures that could have benefited working men and women.

UAW leaders backed Democratic challenger John Kerry and his running mate John Edwards in last year's election.

The UAW's reversal Monday followed a barrage of criticism from both union members and nonunion members. The dispute became instant fodder for such Web sites as The Drudge Report and various radio programs. (Todd: And in my Blog!)

The News received hundreds of e-mails Sunday and Monday about the controversy, the majority criticizing the UAW's decision.

"I have never belonged to the unions, but I've always bought (domestic) brand cars," Jenny Pulcerm 74, of Harrison Township. "Right now, I'm driving a Chrysler. But the next car will definitely not be union-made."

Outside the Marine reservists headquarters, it wasn't hard to find signs of hard feelings. A Toyota pickup truck parked in front of a phalanx of military Humvees sported three bumper stickers. One touted Semper Fi, the Marines' motto, the second was a Bush/Cheney campaign sticker and the third an anti-UAW sign.

The UAW decision to ban Marines struck a nerve with many who say U.S. armed forces deserve more respect, especially during a time of war.

And certainly, some said, Marines should be able to support their commander in chief, President Bush, without facing repercussions.

"The Marines who fought at Iwo Jima -- including yours truly -- and those who are now in Iraq, took an oath to defend this country and its citizens," said Russ Paquette, an 87-year-old lawyer from St. Clair Shores and normer commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines. "There is nothing in the oath which indicates that we Marines will only fight for citizens who drive certain automobiles, or who voted in the last election for a certain president."

Gettelfinger, himself a normer Marine Corps reservist, said his initial decision should not be looked on as a lack of support for the military.

"That certainly was not my intention. ... I fully appreciate the sacrifices and contributions made by America's reservists, National Guard members and active duty military personnel and their families," his statement said.

Gettelfinger also acknowledged the decision reflected poorly on the UAW, which has historically supported the U.S. military.

"The controversy over this decision has overshadowed the many good things the UAW and our members are doing to support and express our appreciation to America's servicemen and -women and veterans," he said.

Some supported Gettelfinger's call.

"It took a lot of guts," said Phil Davis, a 58-year-old Realtor in Tampa, Fla. "It was based on principle."  (Todd: What guts? What principle? The principle of being a jerk and being unpatriotic?)

Dominic Roti, a 64-year-old Farmington retiree who worked 37 years for Chrysler, credits the UAW with setting the benchmark for America's standard of living.

"They're the ones who are putting bread on the table," Roti said. "We're accustomed to live a certain way. ... You have a car to go from work, to home, to the stores -- not like in a lot of European countries. ... The UAW made it that way for us. We're thankful to them." (Todd: Actually, the UAW is responsible for taking bread off the table. If they would simply act on the worker's behalf for higher wages and better benefits, that would be great -- and their organization would be a LOT smaller -- but unfortunately they see themselves as a major political force, and that takes a lot of money out of worker's pocket and sends it to Washington to feed the limousine liberals.)

But many of those who weighed in said the episode changed their opinion of the UAW. Bill Reiber of Vista, Calif., whose son is serving in Iraq, is trading in his Chevrolet S-10 pickup for a vehicle made by a foreign automaker.

"I'm looking at the Toyota Tacoma," he said. "What (the UAW) did, it just wasn't right. These are Marines and they have a right, like anybody else in America, to express their First Amendment rights."

Lt. Col. Rutledge said he's anxious to get past the dispute and get back to business. Owners of a nearby apartment complex have agreed to allow reservists to park on their premises.

"I know people are incensed by this thing," Rutledge said, "but in the big scheme of things, what I do is train Marines and I'm preparing these guys to go overseas."


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