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UAW's Rapson gave GM a run for money

David Barkholz covers IT and labor for Automotive News.
Retiring UAW Vice President Cal Rapson isn't accustomed to backpedaling.

But in eight tough years as Ron Gettelfinger's right-hand man, Rapson first had to accept worker concessions at Delphi during its bankruptcy -- then endure the process again at General Motors as the company descended into Chapter 11.

“Trust me, it has really hurt to have given back a ton of things that we've negotiated over the years,” said Rapson, who came out of GM's Flint, Mich., operations to become the head of the UAW GM negotiating department in 2002.

“But you have to live another day. And you know if you don't do certain things, the company isn't going to make it. And we'll lose even more people. So we had to do the hard things.”

Rapson enjoyed a reputation in the union as a tough, take-no-prisoners negotiator. He led the famous -- or infamous, depending on your perspective -- 55-day Flint strike in 1998. That parts stoppage, over GM efforts to move work out of Flint, eventually shut all of the automaker's assembly plants and cost GM upward of $1 billion in lost production.

Rapson doesn't want to be remembered for that strike.

“I'd like to tell you that I helped get that thing settled,” he clarified.

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