Inside the AFL-CIO
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Column #36 November 27, 2001

New UAW Leaders Will Face
‘Big 3’ Push for Concessions

By Harry Kelber

The United Auto Workers’ administration caucus has nominated Ron Gettelfinger, vice president for bargaining at the Ford Motor Co., to be the union’s next president. He will succeed the retiring Stephen P. Yokich, who is a year beyond the union’s standard retirement age of 65.

Gettelfinger, 57, won the union panel’s nomination over 62-year-old Richard Shoemaker, the vice president for General Motors. He started working at a Ford assembly plant in Louisville, Ky., in 1964. Before becoming the union’s top representative at Ford, he served as UAW regional director in Indiana and Kentucky.

Gettelfinger is considered a tough, shrewd bargainer, but he and his team can expect tremendous pressure for contract concessions that some employers will portray as the only alternative to plant closings and mass layoffs. In 1999, he earned national media attention when he negotiated an unprecedented contract with Visteon Automotive Systems, an auto-parts supplier spinoff from Ford, in which its 23,500 hourly employees won guaranteed job security for life and the same wages and benefits as Ford production workers.

The 19-member administration caucus also chose Elizabeth Bunn, a UAW vice president since 1998, for international secretary-treasurer. An activist attorney, she helped organize and negotiate contracts for employees of Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Michigan and state workers in Michigan and Kentucky. She is one of six women currently serving on the 54-member AFL-CIO Executive Council and will be the first to occupy the UAW’s No. 2 spot.

Gettelfinger and Bunn will inherit some tough problems when they take office next summer. UAW membership has shrunk by more than half, from a peak of 1.5 million in 1978, because of plant closings, outsourcing of work to non-union contractors, relocation of plants to low-wage countries and high-tech innovations. The union’s failure to organize any U.S. auto plant that is completely foreign-owned is a major embarrassment to UAW leadership. Nissan, Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen have all established U.S. plants that have substantially reduced domestic market share for Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler.

Only last month, the UAW lost a representation election at Nissan’s auto plant in Smyrna, Tenn., by a crushing 2-to-1 margin. An attempt to organize the same plant in 1989 led to a loss of similar magnitude.

The union’s next big organizing targets are four Honda plants in Ohio that employ some 9,000 hourly production employees. It faces some of the same problems there that it encountered at Nissan. Honda workers have many grievances, but they receive the same wages and benefits as auto workers at the “Big Three.” Previous attempts by both the UAW and the Teamsters to organize at Honda have failed.

Ford may be the sticking point for UAW negotiators in the 2003 talks. The No. 2 automaker lost more than $1.4 billion this year because of rising costs, big rebates and the Firestone tire recall. Its market share fell 1.5% this year alone. There are persistent rumors that Ford’s planned restructuring may include plant closings in North America that would be ascribed to excessive capacity and falling domestic sales and profits. The recession and the Sept. 11 attacks slowed car and truck sales for both foreign and domestic companies.

In recent years, the UAW has had little success in organizing aerospace workers, part of the union’s traditional jurisdiction. Instead, it has adopted a catch-all organizing strategy, going after university employees, nurses, day care workers, freelance writers and others who seek the protection of a strong union with a remarkable, militant history and a democratic reputation.

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