Friday, June 16, 2006

UAW appoints new guard

Friday, June 16, 2006
UAW appoints new guard
Rapson, King, Holiefield will lead Big Three auto talks
Brett Clanton and Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

LAS VEGAS -- In an important changing of the guard, the United Auto Workers on Thursday named three new vice presidents to lead critical contract negotiations with Detroit automakers next year.

On the final day of the union's 34th Constitutional Convention, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said veteran negotiator Cal Rapson will take over the union's General Motors Corp. division; Bob King will head the Ford Motor Co. unit; and General Holiefield will be lead bargainer with DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group.

Newly elected Vice President James "Jimmy" Settles will replace Rapson as head of the union's aerospace and agricultural division. The UAW's other incoming vice president, Terry Thurman, will replace King as head of the union's organizing efforts.

The newly elected vice presidents, all of whom are union veterans, take office at a critical juncture in the union's history.

With UAW membership in sharp decline, the team will try to preserve jobs and decades of union gains in the face of pressure from downsizing domestic auto companies.

That fight is likely to intensify next year, when Detroit automakers, struggling to fend off fierce Asian rivals, demand more concessions of the union during the negotiations for a new four-year labor contract.

The new vice presidents also will oversee an historic exodus of more than 60,000 workers as part of the restructuring of GM and Ford, and will inherit an ongoing dispute with bankrupt auto supplier Delphi Corp. that may still devolve into a strike.

In light of such challenges, Gettelfinger said he appointed new vice presidents with decades of experience:

King, 59, has been the UAW's director of organizing for eight years. He has brought in 66,000 new members since 2002. His successes sometimes followed bitter campaigns in right-to-work states, such as Kentucky, where workers can decline to join unions even if most of their co-workers belong. Before coming to Solidarity House, he served three terms as director of the UAW's powerful Region 1A -- a post he rose to after hiring on at Ford's Detroit Parts Depot in 1970.

Rapson, 61, has led bargaining at the UAW's agricultural implements department since 2002. Last year, he negotiated a groundbreaking six-year contract with Caterpillar Inc., the world's largest maker of earth-moving equipment that included a controversial two-tier wage system. Caterpillar workers made many concessions, but the deal ushered in a new era of cooperation between that company and its union workers. Rapson joined the UAW in 1965 when he got hired at a Chevrolet engine plant in Flint. In 1982, he chaired the national negotiating committee that dropped scheduled pay increases and reduced the number of paid days off.

Holiefield, 53, has been executive administrative assistant to Gettelfinger since June 2004. As Gettelfinger's aide, Holiefield has mainly operated behind the scenes. But he played an important role in contract talks with Chrysler in 2003. Holiefield joined the UAW in 1973, when he was working at Chrysler's Jefferson Avenue assembly plant in Detroit, and swiftly ascended through the ranks.

Innovative thinking

"The globalized economy has hit the UAW with a force and a speed that's unprecedented," said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "Bargaining at GM and Ford are going to require the kind of innovative thinking that King and Rapson have already shown in their prior assignments."

The three men will replace longtime leaders Richard Shoemaker, Gerald Bantom and Nate Gooden, who are barred from seeking re-election because of their ages.

Shoemaker, however, will remain on "standby" for negotiations with GM and Delphi, UAW officials said.

Mixed reactions

Former UAW President Owen Bieber swore in the new officers on Thursday morning at the union convention, held this week at the MGM Grand Casino's conference center.

Before he read the oath of office, he asked the more than 1,300 UAW delegates on the convention floor to stand and "show we're in lock step with members of the board."

All rose as Bieber led the brief ceremony, and then the room erupted in applause.

Mark Cullen, a delegate from UAW Local 1216 in Sandusky, Ohio, had nothing but praise for the new team.

"There's only one word," he said. "Excellent."

But some delegates quietly complained that the re-election of Gettelfinger and his team was a vote for the status quo at a time when the ailing union needs to be shocked into action.

"I don't see what happened today as positive," said Wendy Thompson, delegate for UAW Local 235 in Detroit.

The appointments surprised some observers who had expected Settles to win a more prominent position. In keeping with union tradition, Gettelfinger did not reveal the vice presidents' assignments until a news conference Thursday afternoon.

33,000 take buyouts

In his remarks Thursday, Gettelfinger also said that more than 33,000 workers at GM and Delphi Corp. have signed up for a buyout program designed to help the companies close plants.

GM has 25,000 U.S. union workers who have agreed to buyouts ranging from $35,000 to $140,000. Another 8,500 employees have accepted at Delphi. The workers have until June 23 to accept the offers.

The buyouts are a key part of plans by GM Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner and Delphi CEO Steve Miller to reduce costs in North America and end losses.

GM, the world's largest automaker, wants to eliminate 30,000 jobs and close 12 manufacturing plants and parts depots by 2008. Delphi, the biggest U.S. auto-parts maker, has been in bankruptcy since October and plans to shutter 21 of 29 manufacturing locations.

You can reach Bryce G. Hoffman at (313) 222-2443 or


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