UAW-Ford’s James Settles: New Role of Unions, Auto Industry

he men that could survive the foundry came to know it as more than just "honest work." The foundry was a mechanical pit of opportunity, a quick path to the African-American middle class that paid a heckuva good wage by 1950s and '60s standards-and helped level the playing field between Blacks and Whites. With auto-factory jobs, Blacks could finally make a dignified living, and men stayed in these jobs for 15 years or more. They were a gateway to the American Dream. But for James "Jimmy" Settles Jr., an 18-year-old boy just out of high school, the foundry felt like hell.

"They actually called it 'living hell,'" says Settles, remembering the "shake out," one of his first jobs on the factory floor. How could he forget? "The job was so hot you only worked a half hour and you were off a half hour. And you got all this hot air and dirt blowing at you."

The UAW-Ford vice president began his career working for the Ford Motor Co.'s Dearborn Iron Foundry and Michigan Casting Center on June 21, 1968, one day after his high school graduation. "Graduation was at night then. I'll never forget … I went home, you know how you take pictures and stuff, and I told my dad, 'I'm going out with the guys.' He said, 'Well, that's good. Just be back here by 4 o'clock. You start work in the morning.'"

He shakes his head at the thought. "You talk about a culture shock." It wasn't like today. Back then, you learned on the job-trial by fire-and he had 11 1/2 hours (a standard shift) to learn how to do the job right.

"I went home after I got off of work that first day; I was on the steps and fell asleep. It was hot as hell outside. And back then, you were a very blessed person if you had a shower," he says. Settles had a tub. "When you let the water out of the tub, you got this orange ring around it from the ore," he says. "That was my baptism."


Settles' dad was a second generation Ford worker and union rep. Settles' grandfather was the first generation after working for a short stint in the factory. Settles was the third generation. And his son, James III, who is an engineer at Ford, makes the fourth.

"My dad was trying to make it so hard for me, so that I would go to college. So I wouldn't stay there. But just like anything else, after about 60 days, you got used to it. You understood what you had to do."

The foundry became family, says Settles.

"It was dirty, nasty, hard work, but people worked well with each other," he explains. The life-shaping experience undoubtedly built the resilience of other notable Detroiters such as Berry Gordy and Joe Louis, who also worked in the factories. "This is the place that got us out of poverty. You can make a middle-class income. You could afford to send your kid to college."

Settles moved out and traded in his '65 Mercury for a '71 Chevy Monte Carlo-a purchase he's still ashamed of. But it sparked a lesson in brand loyalty from his father.

"He had a hissy," remembers Settles with a grin. "He didn't stop (me). He just waited for the opportune time to tell me: 'Let me tell you something about your decisions.'" Once things started slowing down at Ford, his dad sarcastically asked, "Why don't you go to GM and get you a job?" The lesson was clear: Support the company that supports you.

Still, he pleads his case on that Chevy.

"You have to realize that back then the Big Three had 90 percent of the U.S. market, which is the most lucrative market in the world. No competition. It was almost like, I don't care what you got, you were supporting someone in America."

The early '70s was a contradiction for the nation. The economy was in good shape, but bubbling under the public forum was civil unrest. If you weren't fighting in Vietnam, you were at home fighting for civil rights or just fighting to find a purpose, he says.

"Jobs were plentiful. But a lot of people didn't want them," Settles explains. "In one respect you knew you could get a job, but on the other hand, ain't a whole lot of people who like to get up at 3 a.m."

At the time, Blacks were pushing for careers in the skilled trades. They paid more money and you didn't work as hard as you did in the factory plants.

"You gotta remember this is right in the middle of the movement. Then you had all kinds of other movements going on," says Settles, beginning to count with his fingers. "You had the Black Panthers, the Republic of New Afrika, all these different groups. Then you had MLK Jr., which most young people weren't going for that. There was just a lot of confusion."

Then the industry changed. And suddenly, avenues to make a living were mired in uncertainty. "It started with the (1973) oil crisis," says Settles. "When the early '80s came, plants were closing because they weren't selling." American companies weren't selling as many cars because foreign cars were now being produced on U.S. soil, taking percentages away from the market. Soon, the Big Three started closing plants.

"We had massive layoffs," says Settles. "People were committing suicide. First comes, 'It's not gonna last long.' Then, 'It's gonna last 90 days. … It's gonna last two years.' Just gets worse, worse and worse."

Settles ran for office in the union, hoping to restore some job security. He was elected to the UAW Local 600 General Counsel in 1970. He was then elected bargaining committee person and vice president 1977 to 1980. Soon he was unit president, then delegate to the UAW Constitutional Conventions in 1974, 1977, 1980, 1986 and 1989, eventually reaching his position as vice president of UAW-Ford (which ends in 2018).

From starting from the bottom, Settles has learned to be humble.

"I always appreciated the way I started, and I appreciate the people I work with. And I appreciate how they brought me along. And I have an appreciation for hard work," says Settles. He admits, before he ran to hold office in the union, he was ready to quit. "I just couldn't take all this uncertainty," says Settles. "To be honest with you, if I had not been in the union, I would not be at Ford."

Unions were a way to strike a balance. People joined the UAW for protection, explains Settles. "People knew that there was somebody that was going to look out for them, whether they needed it or not," says Settles.

Against a public perception of the UAW being antiquated, the coalition has striven to evolve, extending its care for the worker to the community. Last month, UAW-Ford held its Holiday Boxes of Love initiative, a partnership with 37 UAW local chapters in 19 states to provide balanced meals to more than 20,000 families for Christmas.

This month, on Jan. 16, the UAW will host an annual charity ball at its Detroit headquarters to benefit the JUST Foundation-a 501 (c)(3) Settles created in 2010 to benefit other nonprofits in need.

The new UAW, he says, is about giving the working class and community a voice. And that never gets old.

"I try to use the analogy of, just take a look at not just our Constitution, but our three branches of government. Our congressmen. Maybe that's antiquated, too?" he says with a smile.

"But I think it's there because there's always the need for a layer of checks and balances-and representation," he says with a shrug. "Now, who can argue with that?" 

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