Gettelfinger Weathers the Storm as a Pragmatist

By: Lauren Woods

Fiery UAW President Ron Gettelfinger intimated his distaste for the private equity bidders from New York. "I call 'em strip and flip," he said.

But when DaimlerChrysler AG announced the sale of Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management LP on May 14, Gettelfinger had adopted a different tone. Some UAW members were upset to hear that he backed the deal he had once strongly opposed. "You have to play the cards you're dealt," he said.

Alternately compassionate, sardonic, reticent and sharp, Gettelfinger is also a pragmatist. The UAW leader's notable reversal over the sale of Chrysler mirrors the pragmatism that led Gettelfinger to concur to broad cost-cutting plans at Detroit's biggest automakers in recent years when they risked going bankrupt.

The plight also raised several queries about his role as union defender. In July, Gettelfinger will enter into what may be the most significant labor contract negotiations in the union's history. Some enthusiasts ask: Can he stand up to Detroit's automakers, or will he succumb to the new realities of the American auto industry?

Gettelfinger is on the edge of striking a wage-cutting deal with Delphi Corp., after months of condemning the greed of the company's top executives. Now, with Detroit's Big Three in trouble, auto industry managers and consultants say that the UAW president may have the hardest situation.

Even prior to the formal start of talks, domestic automakers are sending demands for huge givebacks to lessen their hourly labor costs by 30 percent. If Gettelfinger does not grant sufficient concessions, they might go under in a few years taking tens of thousands of workers with them. But if he accedes to the companies' demands, he risks losing the support of workers who have returned hard-fought benefits.

"What Gettelfinger and the UAW and the membership face today is monumental compared with what we went through," said former UAW President Douglas Fraser, a mentor at Wayne State University. "You look at any period in our history, this is the most difficult period."

Gettelfinger has already weathered several storms as a UAW leader, including the Delphi bankruptcy, but the forthcoming negotiations will serve as the biggest test of his leadership. Amid bargaining agreements, Gettelfinger exuded tough and tireless aura with a clever sense of timing. But Gettelfinger is also pragmatic. A trained accountant who studies the financial data, "He's aware of how troubled these times are for both the union and the industry," said Harley Shaiken, a labor specialist and professor at the University of California Berkeley. Perhaps, he will need the breeze of the to make the negotiations conducive.

Industry experts said that Detroit's management and unions both share responsibility for the automakers' difficulties. "There has been greed on both sides," said labor specialist Karen Boroff, also the dean of the Stillman School of Business.

Gettelfinger has already turned the page with Chrysler. At the Mackinac Policy Conference held on May 31, he said: "Some people were surprised to learn that our union is ready to work with a private-equity group like Cerberus." He added he was reassured by Cerberus' plans to invest heavily in Chrysler. "That looks like an opportunity for our membership and our communities, and we're going to do everything we can to make the most of it."

While Gettelfinger understands the structural issues that worry automakers, he rejects the notion that the UAW is the cause of the problem. "We truly do not believe that the union is the one at fault," he noted on WJR Radio. "If you look at what has happened in productivity and quality, safety, those kinds of areas, the union is up in the forefront."

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