Autoworkers Union Elects New Leader

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The UAW elected a new president in Detroit this week. Retiring President Ron Gettelfinger guided the union through the recent auto industry crisis, making major concessions to struggling U.S. automakers. Some UAW members think that Gettelfinger gave up too much, and that the union should focus on getting something back. But others think the UAW needs to take a new approach to business.

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The United Auto Workers elected a new president in Detroit today. Longtime UAW Vice President Bob King will take over a union that's seen its membership decline by almost half in the past decade, to a post-World War II low of just over 355,000. Some UAW members think outgoing President Ron Gettelfinger conceded too much ground to automakers, and that King should try to get some of it back. But others argue for a new approach entirely.

Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek reports.

SARAH CWIEK: The UAW returned to its birthplace to elect new leaders after one of the most turbulent periods in its 75-year history. Addressing convention delegates in his last speech as president, Ron Gettelfinger decried the smear tactics of what he termed right wing, anti-union lawmakers and pundits, who he says would have destroyed U.S. auto industry just to punish the UAW.

RON GETTELFINGER: Their rhetoric has become a drumbeat of anti-union chatter. It has no merit but it continues to shape and form opinions against union.

CWIEK: It's no secret that the union is seen many as the embodiment of an inefficient and bureaucratic work culture. But even its most ardent critics have to admit the Gettelfinger-led UAW gave up a lot, even before the current auto crisis. All those concessions sparked something of an internal backlash best evidenced by long-shot presidential candidate Gary Walkowicz.

Cathy Abney, a delegate from Walkowicz's Detroit area local, told convention- goers the union needs to take on a tougher edge.

CATHY ABNEY: Our union faces a huge crisis, a real emergency brought on by past policies. We need to do a radical 180 degree turn...

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

ABNEY: ...turn away from concessions.

CWIEK: That didn't go over well and Walkowicz was trounced by King. His supporters taut him as a passionate organizer with a global vision. But policy- wise, King hasn't said much to indicate that he'll be that different from Gettelfinger.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

CWIEK: Outside the downtown Detroit Convention Center in a sea of smokers, Al Tiller, a delegate from UAW Local 1005 in Cleveland, says Gettelfinger did what he needed to do to keep U.S. automakers alive. But Tiller thinks they're rounding the corner.

AL TILLER: Why we took a lot of concessions is last time to keep General Motors open. You know, they start getting profitable again, I think we need some of that stuff back.

CWIEK: Joseph Jackson has a slightly different view. A delegate from Local 2164 in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Jackson says the UAW needs to shed some bad habits.

JOSEPH JACKSON: You have to look at it as a get the most efficient with the least amount of people as you possibly can.

CWIEK: And Jackson says greed and hubris on both sides almost drove U.S. automakers off a cliff. Those comments reflect the sentiments of many labor analysts - that unions need to shed a labor versus management mentality and prize in getting the biggest share of the pie. More important is getting workers a fair share of healthy companies.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek in Detroit.

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