This is an election year for the United Auto Workers, and like any dark-horse candidate, Jerry Tucker is sniping at the incumbent, President Owen F. Bieber. "We have seen an era of massive job losses," he told a small group of supporters outside the UAW's Detroit headquarters in January. "Our leaders are trapped into a strategy that won't work."

Tucker, 53, has little chance of winning at the union's June convention. Still, he has UAW leaders worried. Insiders say that prior to General Motors Corp.'s Dec. 18 decision to close 21 plants, the company asked Bieber and Stephen P. Yokich, who heads the UAW's GM department, to help decide which plants should go. Sources say Bieber decided not to, in part because of pressure from Tucker and his fellow dissidents, who call themselves the New Directions movement.

Tucker's power has slipped since the union's last convention in 1989. Back then, he lost the race for director of the union's Region 5, which bumped him off the UAW's executive board. Yokich has since undermined Tucker by taking a similarly combative stance with GM. This, plus the rich wage guarantees Yokich won in 1990 bargaining at GM, has lured back a key New Directions supporter: Donny G. Douglas, president of UAW Local 594 in Pontiac, Mich. Concludes former UAW President Douglas A. Fraser: "Steve sort of defanged them."

That victory may not mean much in the long run, however. While UAW leaders vie with Tucker over who can be tougher with GM, many locals aren't in a fighting mood: They're falling all over themselves to grant concessions they hope will keep their plants open.

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