DETROIT - Huge smiles turn to queasy looks of nervous discomfort when union officials are asked to speculate about potential successors to their boss, Steve Yokich, as UAW president in two years. Talk of succession, they said, is inappropriate and a blow against labor unity.
But in interviews with , a sister publication to Automotive News, five veterans of the Detroit union movement talked privately about the leading candidates to replace Yokich when he retires in June 2002.
According to these sources, UAW vice presidents Richard Shoemaker, who heads the union's GM Department, and Ron Gettelfinger, who directs the Ford Department, are considered the two leading candidates.
Although the UAW's latest organizing successes come from outside the auto industry, tradition still dominates. Yokich and other past presidents have served as vice presidents and directors of the GM, Chrysler or Ford departments before being elected to the presidency.
Shoemaker and Gettelfinger also have higher profiles for leading contract talks with their respective auto companies.
Hal Stack, director of the Labor Studies Center at Wayne State University in Detroit, says the head of the GM Department typically has an inside track to the UAW presidency.
'Shoemaker has the GM job, Yokich had the GM job and (former president Owen) Bieber had the GM job,' he said. 'It's not always that way, but that's usually a pretty good sign.'
But two other younger vice presidents, Elizabeth Bunn and Bob King, both of whom are bringing in members from nonautomotive sectors, also were identified as leaders to watch in the coming decade.
Yokich notes that the UAW added more than 43,000 members in 1999, topping the previous high of 35,000 added in 1985 and bringing the total enrollment to an estimated 800,000.
All that growth is coming from outside the traditional automaker base, from sources as diverse as cafeteria workers in Puerto Rico and graduate-student assistants in California, through organizing drives led by King and Bunn. That is a strong argument in their favor when considering a successor to Yokich.
Yokich himself has said it's too soon to discuss succession. But he has described Bunn, a labor attorney by training, as someone to watch over the long term. At 49, she's the youngest member of the UAW executive board and has negotiated contracts for state employees and health care workers.
She is the only vice president who did not start her career working for an automaker. She practiced labor law and was a member of the National Writers Union before its affiliation with the UAW.
None of the vice presidents would comment on the Yokich succession.
Under union rules, UAW leaders cannot run for office after they turn 65, but they can serve past their 65th birthday to complete a term. Yokich turns 65 in August, and his term ends in June 2002.
Ever since he underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 1997, Yokich has had to rebut speculation that he will retire early for health reasons, rumors he quickly laughs off.
'I'm still going strong,' Yokich said at the UAW's annual media briefing in January.