The United Auto Workers gave up thousands of jobs and benefits worth billions of dollars to help save the U.S. auto industry. The legacy of its new leader, Bob King, will rest on how workers are rewarded during the recovery. King, who defeated Gary Walkowicz 2,115 to 75 on June 16 to succeed President Ron Gettelfinger, takes over a union that has declined to 355,000 members from 1.5 million in 1979.
General Motors posted a net profit and Chrysler Group made money on an operating basis in the first quarter, less than a year after each emerged from bankruptcy. The union helped persuade President Barack Obama to provide an $85 billion taxpayer bailout to those car manufacturers and made concessions to put their labor costs on par with foreign automakers' U.S. plants. King supported the moves.
"There will be tremendous pressure on him to roll back the concessions," says Gary N. Chaison, a labor professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
King, the son of a former Ford Motor (F) industrial relations director, has been painted by challengers in the union as going too easy on that company. More than 70percent of Ford workers rejected additional concessions in November that King endorsed. Still, King's fans say he's no pushover. He led a strike at Johnson Controls (JCI) in 2002 in which he persuaded the auto parts supplier to sign a neutrality agreement allowing the union to organize its other U.S. plants. Ford also said it wouldn't object to the UAW representing workers at Johnson, a Ford supplier. The UAW signed up 25,000 auto parts workers that year, according to labor professor Harley Shaiken of the University of California at Berkeley.
The bottom line: Some critics say the new UAW chief is too soft on automakers, though he's proven his toughness in past negotiations.