DETROIT -- UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams, a former welder and longtime organizer who was instrumental in Barack Obama's 2008 victory in the Iowa caucuses when Obama was an Illinois senator, formally emerged as the front-runner Thursday to succeed retiring union President Bob King.
The UAW unveiled a slate of candidates Thursday for top leadership posts that will be determined during elections scheduled during the union's constitutional convention in June.
Williams is the top choice of union leaders because of his record as a regional director and bargainer; the respect he has earned over the last four years; and his connection to the Obama administration, which played a key role in revamping General Motors and Chrysler Group.
Since the 1940s, candidates selected by the union's so-called administrative caucus have been elected to top leadership jobs.
Gary Casteel, director of the UAW's Region 8, was nominated to replace Williams as secretary-treasurer.
The 2014 election will also result in changes atop the union's departments that oversee bargaining with two of Detroit's 3 automakers.
UAW Vice President Joe Ashton, who overseas bargaining at General Motors, also will retire next year. General Holiefield, who heads the union's Chrysler Department, said this week that he will retire next year.
UAW Region 1C Director Norwood Jewell was endorsed to fill the vice president vacancies created with the retirements of Ashton and Holiefield, the union said in a statement.
UAW spokeswoman Michele Martin said the union is recommending the elimination of one of four vice president positions and that the proposal will be voted on during the June convention.
For years, the UAW has assigned a separate vice president to oversee national bargaining at each of the Detroit 3 automakers.
Two vice presidents -- James Settles Jr., 63, the union's lead negotiator at Ford, and Cynthia Estrada, 45, a longtime organizer who has led efforts to target Spanish-speaking workers -- are running for re-election, the union said.
"I am confident that with this leadership team, the UAW will continue to be a union that fights for equality and justice for its members and for a more equitable society," King, 67, said in a statement. "Dennis Williams is a smart leader who has a proven track record in bargaining, organizing and political action, all so important to maintaining a decent standard of living for UAW members and working people in America."
According to its Web site, the UAW represents about 48,500 workers at GM, 41,500 at Ford Motor Co. and 26,000 at Chrysler.
Williams, 60, has been secretary-treasurer, the union's second-most-powerful post, since 2010. Before that he was a regional director operating out of Chicago for 10 years.
He joined the union as a welder in 1977 and has been a bargainer with the union since 1988, negotiating contracts with Mitsubishi, Caterpillar and other companies.
In the 1990s, he oversaw the union's five-year, bitter strike against Caterpillar.
"I love this union. I love what it stands for," Williams said Thursday after the slate of candidates was unveiled. "I'm not afraid of confrontation. The best way to handle with dealing with corporations is you sit down and talk."
Key recruiting role
Williams has played a leading role in the union's ongoing organizing drives at Volkswagen AG and Nissan Motor Co. factories in Tennessee and Mississippi.
If elected president, he is also expected to address one of the union's biggest internal challenges.
The UAW agreed in 2007 to allow the Detroit 3 to hire hourly workers for about half the previous starting wage of $28 an hour. The automakers agreed to annual wage increases for those workers during labor negotiations in 2011, but the so-called two-tier wage policy remains divisive on the shop floor.
Williams called for "rebuilding the labor movement and eliminating the injustice of the two-tier system" at a three-day UAW conference in Washington this year, Bloomberg reported.
The next president's four-year term also will be marked by potentially contentious contract talks with U.S. automakers and continuing pressure to recruit workers at foreign-owned plants in the United States.
Key negotiating topics with the Detroit 3 are expected to include higher starting wages for new employees, health care spending and company contributions to worker pension funds.
"People will find my demeanor very businesslike with corporations. They will find me very frank with them," Williams said.
Williams was selected Thursday by about 300 members of the union's administrative caucus, which is also known as the Reuther Caucus, named for the UAW's president from 1946 to 1970.
The caucus, consisting of UAW national and local officers and members from around the United States, met Thursday at a hotel outside Detroit close to Ford's global headquarters.
One term on horizon
If elected, Williams will be a one-term president, the second one in a row following King, who became president in 2010. Williams indicated he would retire along with Settles, who at 63 cannot be endorsed by the caucus again.
Williams said he still likes to rub shoulders with rank-and-file plant workers.
"I love the smell of the plant coffee and the smoke in the factory and walking up to UAW members and saying 'brother' or 'sister'," he said.
The union also faces pressure to maintain members in right-to-work states, which now include Michigan, where it was founded.
The UAW's membership ranks increased 0.5 percent to 382,513 last year, the highest level since 2008 and the third consecutive yearly gain. Since U.S. light-vehicle sales bottomed out in 2009, the Detroit 3 have added workers steadily and boosted output as the market recovered.
Still, the union's membership has dropped 31 percent since 2005 and remains well below its peak of 1.5 million members in 1979.
David Phillips and Reuters contributed to this report.