A Rush for the UAW Driver's Seat

The job of championing auto workers during the coming hard times is about to fall to a new man. As Stephen P. Yokich, 66, gets closer to stepping down next June from his post as president of the United Auto Workers, two UAW veterans are vying for his position. Ronald Gettelfinger, 57, considered to have the inside track, is the UAW's vice-president in charge of members at Ford Motor Co. (F ) Richard Shoemaker, 61, is his counterpart at General Motors Corp. (GM ) On Nov. 8, leaders of the union's dominant party will choose one as its nominee for election next June.

Whoever gets the nod will be following a controversial leader who leaves with a mixed record. Yokich, president since 1995, gets credit for preserving wages, benefits, and pensions of UAW workers and retirees. He has been less successful at reversing the slide in membership, now less than half its 1978 peak of 1.5 million. Yokich has also failed to organize workers at foreign-owned plants in the U.S. A drive to organize 4,000 Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY ) workers in Tennessee last month failed by a wide margin.

Will the new guy do better? Gettelfinger, for one, has proved he can be a tough adversary. He earned high praise inside the union for hardball tactics that won a generous contract at Ford. Gettelfinger also backed Ford's then-chief negotiator, Peter J. Pestillo, into a corner by threatening a national strike over the spin-off of parts-maker Visteon (VC ). In the end, Ford was forced to retain existing Visteon workers on its payroll for life, even after the spin-off. He's known as abrasive yet politically astute, with broad support among the UAW's 12 regions nationwide.

Shoemaker, soft-spoken and thoughtful, has close ties to Yokich as his loyal and longtime assistant. But he hasn't always been as effective as Gettelfinger. Critics point to his role in leading workers on 13 strikes at GM since 1996, including two devastating walkouts in 1998 that shut down the company and cost the auto maker $2 billion.

UAW leaders also give Shoemaker demerits for allowing GM to shift too many jobs to lower-paying suppliers. And when GM spun off its own parts unit, Delphi Automotive Systems (DPH ), Shoemaker failed to win a Visteon-type contract for its workers. That's why the smart UAW money is betting on Gettelfinger.

By Joann Muller in Detroit

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