Friday, June 09, 2006

Hardest job in Detroit

****special report: second in a three-part series****
1.53M Members in 1979
557K Members in 2005

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Hardest job in Detroit
Gettelfinger's burden: Protect workers, keep Big 3 afloat

Brett Clanton / The Detroit News

The MGM Grand Convention Center in Las Vegas went dead silent as Ron Gettelfinger took the stage as the new president of the United Auto Workers on June 6, 2002.

To many of the 2,000 UAW members gathered, Gettelfinger was an unknown quantity, a soft-spoken Southerner who had headed the union's Ford division.

But as soon as Gettelfinger opened his mouth, the new voice of the UAW emerged. Pounding the podium with his fist, Gettelfinger issued a call to arms that rang through the hall.

"We need to feel the passion of the union movement in our heart," he said. "Each one of us should ask ourselves what is it that we have done to make our union stronger, and we must be honest with ourselves when we answer."

Few question that Gettelfinger has backed up the words of that first speech every brutal day of the last four years. But even his most loyal backers couldn't deny that he has presided over an unprecedented retrenchment of the proud union.

Next week, Gettelfinger will again take the podium at the UAW's 2006 Constitutional Convention in Las Vegas, where he is expected to be re-elected to a second four-year term. And this time, he will be staring at an even more challenging set of issues.

The union's membership has fallen to an all-time low. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. are cutting 60,000 jobs and closing plants. Bankrupt auto supplier Delphi Corp. is axing another 20,000 positions. Foreign-owned auto plants are thriving in the non-union South, and auto companies of all sizes are relocating factories to Mexico, China and other low-wage countries to dodge U.S. labor costs.

No matter what he does, Gettelfinger's second term -- just as the first -- will see more downsizing of the domestic auto industry. And there will be even greater pressure on him and on the thousands of U.S. auto workers he represents to make unparalleled concessions to help Detroit pull out of its death spiral.

It's easy to see why his position is often called the hardest job in Detroit.

Leader must strike delicate balance

He has to preserve the jobs, wages and benefits his union has fought to achieve over its 71-year history. But he can't be so rigid that he sends the companies off a cliff. And he can't give too much, or he risks losing the backing of his members.

Since he took office in 2002, Gettelfinger has earned a reputation for being both a feisty and principled protector of union workers and a fact-driven pragmatist who will cut a deal when he has to.

But in his next term, he will have to summon a career's worth of experience -- and all the political support he can muster -- to hold together the union at what could be a historic turning point for the labor movement and for the dwindling U.S. auto manufacturing industry.

That such a lofty task falls to a straight-laced former chassis-line repairman from a microscopic farming town in Indiana only deepens the plot and adds to the intrigue around him.

While Gettelfinger's critics say he has gotten too close to management and is more willing to grant concessions than send workers out on the picket line, people who have worked closely with him through the years paint a picture of a fair and hard-working leader committed to doing the right thing.

"The ones of us in the know just thank God every day that he's where he is," said Rocky Comito, president of UAW Local 862, which represents workers at a Ford plant in Louisville, Ky, where Gettelfinger got his start. "I can't imagine how it'd be with someone else there."

In many ways, his humble background and hard-driving ascent through the union's ranks have uniquely prepared him for what lies ahead.

He grew up one of 12 children on a farm in Frenchtown, Ind., a quiet settlement about 20 miles west of Louisville, Ky., so small that it doesn't appear on some maps.

A handful of unionized auto plants sit nearby and the town's best-known landmark is a Catholic church, which helps explain why locals joke that Frenchtown is full of Catholics and Democrats.

Gettelfinger's first exposure to labor unions was through his father, Paul, who took a job a DuPont Co. rubber plant in Louisville to supplement his farming income. But it wasn't until Paul and his co-workers went on strike for better pay that the role of unions hit home with Ron.

After starting his formal education in a two-room schoolhouse, Gettelfinger went on to graduate from Indiana University Southeast in 1976 with a business degree. He would have finished sooner, but he dropped out to join the Marine Reserves when college bills mounted.

Along the way, he also took a job as a chassis-line repairman at a Ford assembly plant in Louisville, taking college courses as he could. And in 1978 he was elected bargaining chairman of the plant.

In that role, he pleaded with Ford not to close the underperforming facility, and won a six-month stay of execution to see if the plant could turn around. With prodding from Gettelfinger, it did and Ford rewarded the efforts by agreeing to build the new Ford Ranger pickup at the plant.

Vigor, hard work won attention

His work ethic, upbeat personality and dogged devotion to the union gained the attention of UAW leaders outside Louisville. And soon he rose to director of Region 3, which represents UAW workers in Kentucky and Indiana.

It was in that job that Douglas Fraser, UAW president from 1977 to 1983, remembers first meeting Gettelfinger. In a car ride from the airport to a speaking engagement, Fraser was struck by Gettelfinger's enthusiasm and vigor.

"My first impression of him was that he was exceedingly hard-working."

Fraser remembers asking Gettelfinger if he was interested in coming to Detroit to work at the union's headquarters. But Gettelfinger turned him down, explaining that he was content where he was.

That's no surprise to Elmer Blankenship, a retired assistant director of UAW Region 3, who worked with Gettelfinger when he was head of UAW Local 862 in Louisville.

"Ron was always happy with the role he was playing," he said. "It was others who were urging him to move up."

After six years as Region 3 director, Gettelfinger in 1998 was elected vice president of the UAW's aerospace and Ford divisions, one of the union's top positions.

Just four years later, he would find himself in the president's office in Detroit, the hand-picked successor to outgoing chief Stephen Yokich.

Straight-laced chief a breed apart

It became clear that Gettelfinger was a different breed of union boss. A devout Catholic and workaholic, who shunned cigarettes and alcohol, frowned on golf outings and took his wife Judy with him on out-of-town trips, he cut a unique profile in the salty organization.

Gettelfinger's reputation for being a straight arrow has been with him from his earliest days in the auto industry, said Steven Stone, benefits representative at Louisville's Local 862, who was on staff when Gettelfinger was local president.

"When you get into an assembly plant, you're going to hear a lot of cursing and joking or whatever," he said. "You never heard that out of Ron. I don't think I even heard a 'damn' from him."

Yet it was Gettelfinger's balanced approach to problem-solving that won him the respect of company executives who have sat across from him at the bargaining table.

"I don't think I've come across a more dedicated protector of the interests of workers than Ron," said Joe Laymon, Ford's group vice president of corporate human resources and labor affairs. "He looks at what is in the best interest of the UAW, even if he may not be around to reap the benefits."

Gettelfinger's endurance during marathon negotiations is also legendary.

"The man has boundless energy," said John Franciosi, senior vice president of employee relations at DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group. "I can hang pretty good through the bargaining process. But Ron walked us through one stretch that was 62 hours straight."

Gettelfinger's critics say his close relationship with Detroit automakers is a liability. They say the companies have used their falling profits and shrinking market share as excuses to chip away at hard-fought union gains, and that Gettelfinger too easily caves to their demands.

"He's probably closer to management than any other president in the history of the UAW," said Charles Deppert, former president of the Indiana AFL-CIO, who worked with Gettelfinger when he was a UAW regional director. "He surely wouldn't be considered a (Walter) Reuther, or anybody like that," he said, referring to the hard-line UAW president, in office from 1946 to 1970.

Gettelfinger's detractors have become more vocal in recent months as the UAW leader granted landmark concessions to Ford and GM outside the normal four-year cycle for negotiating a labor contract.

Last fall, GM and Ford penned deals with the UAW to shed billions in future health care liabilities by shifting more out-of-pocket costs to retirees and deferring pay raises for active workers. And in March, GM and Delphi won approval from the union to offer buyout and early retirement packages to thousands of hourly workers at each company to help speed their turnarounds.

Not since the early 1980s, when then-Chrysler Corp. was on the brink of bankruptcy, has the UAW made such sweeping midcontract changes.

"We negotiated three agreements in 13 months, and each one was worse than the next," Fraser said. But he recalls a key difference between that era and the current one.

"Back then, we always knew it would come back. There is no such hope now."

Next term will define legacy

Whether or not Gettelfinger goes down in history as the right man at the right time for the job will largely be determined by what he does in the next four years.

Next year, he will renegotiate a four-year contract with Detroit automakers, who view the talks as a key opportunity to become more competitive with lower-wage "transplant" factories in the South owned by Toyota, Honda and other foreign auto companies.

He also will have to manage a historic exodus of tens of thousands of UAW workers from GM and Ford, while preserving the union's influence and leverage in future negotiations.

But the most pressing issue will be finding a "soft landing" for thousands of Delphi workers caught in the middle of the auto supplier's reorganization.

Since its Oct. 8 bankruptcy filing, Delphi has pushed for its $27-per-hour UAW workers to accept wage cuts up to 60 percent. It also plans to jettison about two-thirds of its 33,000 U.S. factory workers.

After failing to win union concessions, Delphi asked the bankruptcy court for permission to tear up its labor pacts and unilaterally impose wage cuts. If it goes that way, Gettelfinger has threatened to strike -- a move that could ruin Delphi and hobble GM, its largest customer.

If Delphi collapses, "it's going to hyper-accelerate the pace for confrontation," said David Gregory, a labor law professor at St. John's University.

Gettelfinger declined to be interviewed for this article. But in recent months, as bomb after bomb exploded around him, he has continued to frame the troubles of the U.S. auto industry in broad terms -- as a fight for the middle class, as an illustration of what's wrong with globalism, as a battle for what we stand for as a nation.

Last October, a day before Delphi Corp.'s devastating Chapter 11 filing and with ominous signs mounting at General Motors and Ford, the same unflappable resolve was on display.

Standing outside Cobo Center after a morning meeting, the wiry man with the bleach-white mustache stayed focused on his message.

"Why is our trade deficit in goods and services going to be over $700 billion?" he asked a group of reporters. "Why do we have 46 million Americans without health care? Why have the people in Washington, D.C., as of January 2006, received eight wage increases and the minimum wage is still $5.15 per hour?"

He went on, rattling off statistics about poverty, executive pay raises and other issues, before stopping to catch his breath.

"What's wrong with this picture?"

At the end of the day, however, it may all just be shouting into the wind. Despite Ron Gettelfinger's best efforts, he may be helpless to protect a way of life that has already begun to fade away.

You can reach Brett Clanton at (313) 222-2612 or


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