One thing I've learned about Ron Gettelfinger in five years of covering the UAW is that the outgoing UAW president is an early riser and early to events.
So I arrived more than an hour before Gettelfinger was to address a luncheon crowd in Detroit on Thursday for a program arranged by the Automotive Press Association. The Detroit Athletic Club was still putting on linen table cloths when I set up shop.
Sure enough, Gettelfinger and spokeswoman Christine Moroski were among the first guests to arrive so that he could mix with reporters ahead of lunch. He acceded to a quick interview as a courtesy to my boss, Keith Crain.
Gettelfinger, 65, hesitated a little when I told him I would ask about his legacy. On June 16, a UAW constitutional convention in Detroit will elect his successor. That somebody will be UAW Vice President Bob King, who's in charge of the union's negotiations with Ford. Gettelfinger is retiring.
Gettelfinger is clearly uncomfortable talking about himself. Whether it's out of respect for the sacrifices made by members over the past four years, the 75 years that the UAW has fought for rights and benefits or God-honest humility, Gettelfinger said he'd leave his legacy for others to determine.
"I really don't think about it," Gettelfinger said. "This has always been about the people. Every day it is a privilege and opportunity to represent workers.
"And we just do the best job we can. I've never worried about that. I've tried to make decisions based on the facts in the best interest of the workers."
You would never know from Gettelfinger's upbeat demeanor how brutal his two terms as UAW president have been.
Since he took the helm of the union in 2002, UAW membership has dropped from about 676,000 to less than 400,000 today, probably closer to 350,000. Think back to 1980 when the union had nearly 1.5 million members and was instrumental in setting the political and social agenda for the country.
In contrast, Gettelfinger had no choice but to negotiate buyouts for tens of thousands of auto workers as the Detroit 3 shrank. He locked horns with former Delphi chief Steve Miller as Delphi gutted its U.S. presence in bankruptcy.
Then Gettelfinger accepted concessions in the 2007 master contracts. He suffered humiliation with Detroit 3 CEOs during 2008 Congressional hearings to plead for federal bailouts. Then he had to accept more concessions during the Chrysler and General Motors bankruptcies in 2009. His tenure culminated with the transfer of retiree health care from the Detroit 3 to a UAW-administered trust in 2010.
Through it all, Gettelfinger kept his temper, kept his humanity and fought on. I've heard Ron Gettelfinger express his gratitude for the opportunity to represent workers on enough occasions to know it's heartfelt.
Happy trails, Mr. President. Thank you.