No major shifts likely at UAW

Gettelfinger likely to follow Yokich agenda

DETROIT - Don't look for major changes in policy when Ron Gettelfinger takes over as president of the UAW next June.

Gettelfinger, 57, was nominated last week by the UAW's Administrative Caucus of top 19 leaders, which all but guarantees he will be elected president by rank-and-file delegates to the UAW convention in Las Vegas next June.

Gettelfinger, who has been a UAW vice president and head of the union's Ford department since 1998, likely will follow the same path as current President Steve Yokich, 66, who has passed the union's mandatory retirement age. That means:

  • Continued organizing efforts among suppliers and the New American Manufacturers, such as the recently failed bid at Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. in Tennessee.

  • Pragmatic, case-by-case support for Big 3 efforts to improve efficiency in places such as Ford Motor Co.'s plant in Chicago and General Motors' new plant in Lansing, Mich. With the union's approval, both plants are making greater use of modular assembly techniques.

  • Cooperation with Big 3 plans to trim jobs, but not whack them. Earlier this year, the union did not protest the Chrysler group's plan to eliminate 19,500 hourly jobs in Canada, the United States and Mexico.

    Challenges ahead

    Described as a deeply religious man and a straight arrow who drives a hard bargain, Gettelfinger will take over the UAW as the automotive industry heads into its toughest period in years, and automakers are expected to push for concessions from the union.

    The next big push could come before Gettelfinger takes office. Ford is expected to announce a massive corporate restructuring in a few weeks, which will include plans to slash both white- and blue-collar jobs.

    Gettelfinger, who worked his way up from the chassis line at a Ford plant in Louisville, Kentucky, to the senior ranks of the union, won praise for negotiating a tough contract with Ford in 1999. The pact included lifetime employment for workers at automotive parts supplier Visteon Corp., even after it was spun off by Ford.

    Falling membership

    As Yokich's successor, he faces the prospect of leading the union into difficult contract negotiations with the Big 3 in 2003. The UAW has seen its membership fall by more than half since 1979 - to what Yokich estimated on Thursday as a total 732,000 active members - as American automakers have downsized because of pressures from overseas-based competitors.

    "I think obviously we would like to grow our membership," Gettelfinger said at a press conference on Thursday, Nov. 8, when asked what his priorities were likely to be as president.

    When asked about his management style, he jokingly responded: "Abrasive."

  • You can reach Edward Lapham at elapham@crain.com

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