Will Yokich Breathe Fire Into The Uaw?

Styrofoam coffee cup in one hand, chocolate doughnut in the other, Stephen P. Yokich leaned into a cold wind in front of the St. Clair Shores (Mich.) City Hall and exhorted arriving voters to reelect his daughter, Tracey, a two-term state representative. Yokich, an outspoken, 59-year-old vice president of the United Auto Workers union, had taken two vacation days to round up last-minute votes for Tracey's ultimately successful bid. "It's a long day," he said, hunching his shoulders against a strong gust.

Such tireless politicking is more than fatherly devotion. It's a way of life that has catapulted Yokich to the top ranks of organized labor. The blustery negotiator, who has headed the union's General Motors Corp. department since 1989, was nominated in early November to succeed President Owen F. Bieber when he retires in June. Yokich's tough-talking style makes him popular with members, and his approval is all but assured at the UAW's convention next spring.

"WARD HEELER." With Yokich at the helm, the UAW is likely to become a more openly combative organization. This is the man, after all, who this year alone has called five local strikes at GM to oppose its downsizing. Behind Yokich's tough public persona, however, is a shrewd politician who quietly has allowed GM to cut thousands of jobs in violation of the union's contract. "He's a good ward heeler as well as a good strategist," says Peter J. Pestillo, Ford Motor Co.'s executive vice-president for corporate relations.

Yokich will need those skills like never before as he tries to reverse the union's skid. Membership has plunged by 50% since its 1979 peak, to just 760,000. The decline halted in the past year as Ford and Chrysler Corp. added workers to meet surging demand. But the gains are largely offset by losses at GM, which continues to shed workers to adjust to its smaller market share.

One of Yokich's biggest challenges will be to allow GM to shrink enough to make it competitive with rivals but to keep the pace slow enough to stave off revolt among restive workers. He'll also inherit divisive relations at strike-torn Caterpillar Inc., as well as a need to pump up the neglected organizing drives that bring in new members.

So far, Yokich's sharp political instincts have turned the potentially disastrous situation at GM into a win, at least for himself. In the late 1980s, a UAW splinter group called New Directions was gaining power by resisting cooperation with GM. Yokich neutralized the dissent by taking a combative stance against cooperation and authorizing local strikes that let off steam and slowed GM's rush to shed workers.

Most recently he authorized a walkout on Sept. 27 at a Flint (Mich.) factory whose local is headed by Dave Yettaw, a prominent New Directions leader. When GM compromised and agreed to hire 500 new workers instead of running so much overtime, Yettaw lost a platform for complaints against Yokich. "If you take all the stones away from him, what's he going to throw?" says Tom Fricano, a UAW regional director.

DEEP ROOTS. Although Yokich's tough-guy posturing has kept members happy, in reality he has let GM off easy. The company has cut its UAW workforce by some 90,000 jobs since 1989. Yokich has ignored the fact that some of this has been in violation of the union's contract, which requires GM to hire one worker for every two that leave. Yokich also concedes that some of GM's struggling parts operations can't compete with nonunion factories that pay a third of GM's $45-an-hour labor cost.

Such political savoir-faire has deep roots. Yokich grew up in a staunchly UAW household. His father was a union steward at an independent toolmaker in suburban Detroit, and his mother worked on a GM assembly line. Yokich followed in his father's footsteps and by 1961 had also become a steward at Local 155. He climbed the ranks and in 1980 was named vice-president in charge of the union's agricultural implement department. There he presided over a bitter 205-day strike at Cat that gave him a reputation as a firebrand.

While Yokich's relations with company officials have matured, his sometimes abrasive temperament still raises hackles in the union. Current and former UAW officials describe him as a sometimes tyrannical manager who strong-arms people that stand in his way. "Hardly anybody likes the SOB," says Norm Acord, a former union staffer. "He's a little bully." Yokich also is known for berating other union officials in public. "One time he said I crawled out from under a rock, which I didn't appreciate," says Yettaw. Those who anger Yokich may be shunted into dead-end jobs, often at what officials say he calls the "Funny Farm," a UAW/GM human resource center in suburban Detroit.

Yokich will need the temper of a saint to solve the union's two-year struggle with Cat. Union members have been without a negotiated contract since 1992, when Cat refused to accept a pattern deal reached at Deere & Co. They're now 5 months into their second walkout with no compromise in sight. UAW Secretary-Treasurer Bill Casstevens, who's in charge of Cat members, is being forced to retire by Yokich and other UAW leaders. Yokich isn't saying who he wants to replace Casstevens. But he's feeling the pressure to do something. "Yokich isn't going to be gauged by how many strikes he has but by how he settles this black eye the union has with Caterpillar," says Yettaw.

He may have a shiner of his own to nurse. The Labor Dept. is looking into charges that Yokich steered lucrative union business to a friend's eye-care business in return for financial favors. The Detroit Free Press recently reported that Avery Sterling Jr., whose Sterling Vision Shoppes Inc. provides eye care to GM and Ford workers, donated $3,000 to the 1990 election campaign of Yokich's daughter. A Labor spokesman declined to comment on the existence of an investigation. Yokich says the idea that he did anything wrong is "just crazy." And while some union officials worry that he may have violated UAW ethics rules, even political rivals don't think criminal charges are likely.

GOOD GAME. Long-term, the UAW's biggest worry is preserving its clout in autos. Although it still represents almost all of the 385,000 hourly workers at the Big Three, foreign carmakers and their suppliers employ 109,000 workers in the U.S.--92% of them nonunion. And the number will grow as Mercedes-Benz and BMW ramp up new plants. Yokich says he plans another big organizing push at the U.S. factories of Japanese carmakers, where pressures to lift profits may make workers more receptive to the union. However, the UAW flopped in its last major effort in the late 1980s, when it made a run at Nissan Motor Co.'s plant in Smyrna, Tenn.

It's unclear whether Yokich will become one of the labor movement's great leaders. Even some top UAW officials wonder if he has the vision and flexibility to lead the union successfully into the next century. He talks a good game: "In a fast-changing society, a union that doesn't change isn't going to survive." In a few months he'll have a chance to prove he can play it.


REPAIR DAMAGE FROM CATERPILLAR STRIKE United Auto Workers President-elect Stephen Yokich must repair the damage to the UAW's bargaining power from the two-year standoff.

MANAGE GM DOWNSIZING Yokich must find a way to cushion the impact of GM's plans to shed some 20,000 workers.

UNIONIZE TRANSPLANTS With Japanese carmakers expanding U.S. operations and Mercedes-Benz and BMW opening plants, Yokich must reverse the UAW's string of organizing failures.

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