DETROIT (Reuters) - United Auto Workers delegates will gather in Detroit this week to elect new leaders as the union emerges from the U.S. auto industry’s near-death experience with fewer workers, lower wages and an uncertain set of bargaining chips.
Bob King, 63, a veteran of UAW negotiations with Ford Motor Co who was endorsed as president by UAW leadership last year, faces an unusual and last-minute challenge from a dissident candidate, a sign of the simmering tensions within the battered union.
Still, King is expected to be voted in as union president on Wednesday and to face immediate calls to win back some ground lost in the auto industry downturn during contract negotiations next year that will center on Ford, the only U.S. automaker to have avoided bankruptcy.
The UAW leadership vote this week comes almost exactly a year after U.S. government intervention saved General Motors Co and Chrysler and made the union a major shareholder in the restructured automakers.
“You have a lot of anger. You have a lot of apprehension. You have a lot of uncertainty among union members,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “But how could you have anything else given what everyone has gone through and is going through?”
The longshot leadership bid by Gary Walkowicz, a Ford worker from Michigan, is almost certain to fail because the union delegates gathering in Detroit tend to be strongly aligned with the views of union leadership, analysts said.
Walkowicz was among the local leaders who organized to defeat a round of concessions that King had negotiated with Ford last year in a vote that was seen as a rebuke to UAW leadership after five years of near-constant concessions.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what path they take,” said IHS Global Insight analyst Aaron Bragman. “There are a number of UAW workers who are frankly disenfranchised with the fact that they had to make these big concessions.”
The union’s current president, Ron Gettelfinger, is retiring after an eight-year term where he steered the union through historic givebacks on pensions, health care and wages for new workers as the U.S. auto industry slid toward crisis.
“I never worry about a legacy, I’ve always just tried to do my job to the best of my ability,” Gettelfinger told reporters on Sunday night ahead of the convention.
Gettelfinger retires this week after 45-1/2 years with the union and said he and his wife Judy have not made any plans.
“I feel obligated to see it through until that gavel changes, then it is about me,” he said. “Until then, it is about our membership.”
Under Gettelfinger, the UAW agreed to allow new workers to be hired at about $14 per hour — about half of the $28 base rate for existing autoworkers.
In another milestone, the union agreed to create a trust fund to take over responsibility for funding retiree health care. That deal, which was reached in the union’s 2007 contract talks with Detroit automakers, removed an obligation estimated at almost $90 billion from GM, Ford and Chrysler.
It also gave the union’s healthcare trusts a financial claim that turned into a 55-percent stake in Chrysler and a 17.5 percent stake in GM when both of those companies were restructured in bankruptcy by the Obama administration.
Gettelfinger said the financial representatives of the healthcare trusts would make the final decision on whether to participate in GM’s expected initial public offering which would allow the U.S. government to reduce its stake in GM.
“I think taxpayers will come out fine,” he said.
President Barack Obama, then an Illinois senator, had delivered a videotaped message of support to the last UAW convention in Las Vegas in 2006. The union campaigned heavily for Obama in 2008 and for his health care reform agenda.
A soft-spoken and strait-laced former Ford electrician who worked his way up the UAW leadership ranks, Gettelfinger has had to defend his pragmatic deal-making from union dissidents who have urged a harder line.
That pressure from rank-and-file workers has become more evident as industry executives have pointed toward signs of a turnaround from the near collapse in auto sales in 2009.
In a speech last month, King estimated that the average UAW worker had given back pay and benefits worth between $7,000 and $30,000 over the past decade.
King, a University of Michigan graduate, joined the UAW in 1970 after serving in the U.S. Army. He trained at Ford as an electrician while studying law at the University of Detroit.
Like Gettelfinger, who became a confidant of executives ranging from Ford Chairman Bill Ford to GM CEO Ed Whitacre, King has endorsed a pragmatic approach to contract talks.
But King has taken a sharper line in pushing the UAW to support social causes. King also has joined protests against training for foreign officers at a U.S. Army facility at Fort Benning, Georgia, and he spoke out against the Iraq war.
This year King also emerged as the UAW’s point person in its failed campaign to convince Toyota Motor Corp to drop plans to close a California assembly plant.
UAW membership peaked at near 1.5 million in 1979, but had fallen to about 732,000 when Gettelfinger was nominated in late 2001 to lead the union. By 2009, membership had dropped below 400,000 workers.
Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim; Editing by Diane Craft and Marguerita Choy