United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger confirmed Thursday that he will retire next year, clearing the way for a new leader who will face a different but perhaps equally daunting set of challenges.
Gettelfinger said he expects to step down at the end of June 2010, refuting reports that he might seek a third term. That would have required the union to revise a longstanding policy that its officials retire at age 65.
“I am going to abide by that policy,” Gettelfinger, 64, told Paul W. Smith on WJR-AM (760) radio. “I just hope whoever does follow me in office has a much better road to travel than what we’ve been down.”
But his successor is likely to face similarly difficult challenges. “It’s going to be a critical transition,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor historian at the University of California-Berkeley. “The future of the union will hang in the balance, and it will require some strong leadership.”
In recent years, the union has drawn from the ranks of its vice presidents for the top position, and Vice President Bob King is mentioned as a leading candidate to succeed Gettelfinger.
King is a three-term vice president who represents Ford Motor Co.’s workers. He is well regarded in the UAW and has crucial experience organizing workers and dealing with suppliers.
“Bob King is exceptional,” Shaiken said, but he added that it was too early to declare a front-runner.
The other vice presidents are General Holiefield, chief representative for Chrysler’s workers; Cal Rapson, who handles GM; and James Settles, who handles suppliers, among other responsibilities. Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Bunn is mentioned as a dark-horse because she has not headed one of the Detroit Big Three departments.
Gettelfinger declined Thursday to say who he thought was best qualified to succeed him. “Within our organization today, nobody’s thinking about politics,” he said. “We’ve been in a crisis situation now for months. We’re dealing with problems, we’re dealing with issues that impact literally millions of people.”
In his seven years as UAW president, Gettelfinger has faced the near-bankruptcy of two of Detroit’s automakers, historic contract negotiations, and a profound industry restructuring that has slashed union membership.
“He’s guided the union in the toughest times — not the toughest times since, the toughest times period,” Shaiken said. “He’s had an unusually steady hand in very rough waters.”
Gettelfinger said he hoped to conclude agreements before the end of the year to fix industry problems, but labor experts and union insiders say the industry’s struggle for survival will probably extend beyond this year.
The next UAW president also will have to deal with the steep decline in the union’s membership and clout — the number of members has shrunk by more than half since 1990, to around 400,000.
The U.S. industry’s recent growth has come from foreign-owned assembly plants that the UAW has been unable to organize.
Karen Boroff, a labor expert and dean of Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business, said the next president will have to develop more financial expertise at the union to better understand the situation of the automakers and suppliers.
The new leader also may have to deal with car companies that no longer have identical interests. “The new leader is going to face less solidarity and more contentiousness on his own side of the table,” she said.
Stan Marshall Sr., a former UAW national vice president, who exchanged e-mails with Gettelfinger Thursday, said criticism is unwarranted.
“The people who criticize him now for giving up too much right now, they don’t understand that bankruptcy can potentially take away just about everything we fought for,” Marshall said.
Boroff praised Gettelfinger’s decision to step down.
“Changing leaders is important in an organization,” she said. “Changed leadership not only helps bring new ideas, but it helps to keep an organization ethical.”