ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Ron Gettelfinger may have the hardest job in American labor right now. He runs the United Auto Workers or UAW. And tomorrow, he kicks off the toughest contract talks in that union's history. The big Detroit automakers are fighting for their financial lives, and they'll be pushing for big concessions. Unlike some of his predecessors, Gettelfinger is known for working with management. That may be critical as the union tries to play a weak hand.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Detroit.

FRANK LANGFITT: In 1980, Ron Gettelfinger worked as union official at a struggling Ford plant in Louisville. It was listed to close. John Calhoun Wells was Kentucky's Labor Secretary then. He says that instead of railing against the company, Gettelfinger worked to improve the product.

Mr. JOHN CALHOUN WELLS JOHN CALHOUN WELLS (Kentucky's Former Labor Secretary): Ron led over 100 separate meetings within the plant with the entire workforce, looking people in the eye and saying, look, you know, this plant is going to be gone if we don't make some changes here.

LANGFITT: The plant survived and, according to Wells, became one of the strongest at Ford. Wells says Gettelfinger brings a needed sense of realism as the union bargains with companies staring into the abyss.

Mr. WELLS: I think his leadership is going to be absolutely essential for the survival of the American auto industry.

LANGFITT: Gettelfinger's background isn't typical of a UAW leader. He studied accounting in college - all the better to understand the companies on the other side of the table. Gerald Meyers is the former chairman of American Motors. He says, when Ford and GM complained about financial problems, Gettelfinger checked it out.

Mr. GERALD MEYERS (Former Chairman, American Motors Corporation): He brought in Lazard, for example, as an investment banking firm, to give him some assistance, look at the books. That's the sign of a sophisticated person.

LANGFITT: Gettelfinger wouldn't strike you as a stereotypical union boss, either. A trim 62-year-old, he doesn't travel with an entourage. He brings his wife, Judy, to out-of-town meetings.

Former union president Doug Fraser has known Gettelfinger since the early 1980s.

Mr. DOUGLAS FRASER (Former UAW President): I think he's a little different than most autoworkers, including myself.

LANGFITT: And how do you mean?

Mr. FRASER: He doesn't drink. He doesn't smoke. He doesn't do it at all. I mean, zero. His lifestyle is much stricter.

LANGFITT: Gettelfinger rarely speaks to reporters and wouldn't talk to us. He prefers a friendly Detroit radio talk show where his views go unchallenged. Colleagues insist he can be warm and funny, but Meyers and others say Gettelfinger's all business.

Mr. MEYERS: I don't think he enjoys people, which is strange to say for someone whose business is people. I can't imagine him telling a joke. I can't visualize him being light-hearted.

LANGFITT: Instead, the word that keeps coming up when you talk about Gettelfinger is pragmatic. When private equity firms were looking to buy Chrysler this year, he described them in a speech as the business equivalent of chop shops.

Mr. RON GETTELFINGER (President, United Auto Workers): Many of them are out to increase their wealth by stripping and flipping companies.

LANGFITT: Then, when one of them bought Chrysler, Gettelfinger surprised his members and backed the deal. He said he got assurances the new company wouldn't cut more jobs. Here's how he explained it at a news conference.

Mr. GETTELFINGER: You're dealt a hand, now we maintained and I would still maintain today that we would prefer that the Chrysler Group stay under the umbrella of Daimler. But that's not going to happen.

LANGFITT: When a reporter pressed him on whether he'd flip-flopped, Gettelfinger grew testy.

Mr. GETTELFINGER: Well, it's all right to use that term. It doesn't bother me. But I thought I answered that question? I thought that was the first question. Are you late?

Mr. MIKE PARKER (Electrician, Chrysler plant): I was very disappointed in his flip-flop.

LANGFITT: That's Mike Parker. He's an electrician at a Chrysler plant here. He's grabbing a cup of coffee after work. Like other workers, Parker wants Gettelfinger and union leaders to put up a fight. Parker says if they keep giving up workers' benefits, it undermines the union's very reason to exist.

Mr. PARKER: Well, I think the message it will send to workers is that the union does not represent them as against their bosses, which is what they need, and will instead say, okay, the union will be just another boss, or another institution that they have to pay dues for. And why should they bother?

LANGFITT: But with all three companies struggling, Gettelfinger will almost certainly make concessions. The question is this: can he give up just enough to help the Detroit Three become profitable again, but not so much that its own members turn against him?

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Detroit.

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