DETROIT – Within days of becoming the ninth president of the United Auto Workers (search) last year, Ron Gettelfinger (search) ordered a strike against a major auto parts company, sending a fiery message that the union would take bold steps under his tenure.
After a two-day walkout at four unionized plants at Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI), the company agreed not to interfere as the UAW worked to organize about 8,000 employees at 26 of the company's nonunion plants.
"With Gettelfinger in office, the UAW has pursued some of the most innovative organizing tactics of any American union," said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley who specializes in labor issues.
On Thursday, the 59-year-old Gettelfinger sent another signal when he wrapped up what observers believed were the quickest contract negotiations ever with Detroit's Big Three automakers, winning moderate increases in wages and pension benefits while allowing the U.S. auto industry, facing fierce foreign competitors, to cut jobs.
Gettelfinger's speedy negotiations with General Motors Corp. (GM), Ford Motor Co. (F) and the Chrysler arm of DaimlerChrysler AG (DCX) show both the union and the Big Three recognize that their future depends on their collective health, analysts said.
"I think both labor and management have a very strong sense of their mutual dependency. If one of them kicks a hole in the boat, they both drown," said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research (search) and a long-time industry observer.
Over the past two decades as the Big Three's market share and the union's membership both tumbled, the union and GM in particular became embroiled in nasty disputes, culminating in a strike at two GM parts plants in the summer of 1998 which shut down GM's operations for nearly two months.
But the union never talked about striking during this year's Big Three contract negotiations. In a joint news conference on Thursday, Gettelfinger and GM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner (search) emphasized their collective interests as they fight foreign automakers in the hotly contested U.S. market.
"By and large our fates as institutions are far more shared than in conflict with each other," Wagoner said.
Both the Johnson Controls strike and the settlement with the Big Three signaled a top priority of Gettelfinger's — adding more members to a union that has been hit by job cuts at the troubled Big Three automakers.
The UAW's active membership has fallen by more than 50 percent since the late 1970s to roughly 626,000 workers as the U.S. car companies shed jobs. Under the new contract, subject to rank-and-file approval, the Big Three will cut even more jobs as they close inefficient plants.
However, DaimlerChrysler agreed to steps that will help the union organize its Mercedes plant in Alabama, and a new van plant in Georgia. The Big Three also agreed to emphasize with their parts suppliers the benefits of a unionized work force.
Under Gettelfinger's leadership, the UAW has made strides in organizing parts suppliers Dana Corp. (DCN) and Magna International Inc. (MGA) In a major foray into the historically union-unfriendly south, the UAW has organized five plants at DaimlerChrysler's heavy truck manufacturer Freightliner (search), adding about 4,000 members since the beginning of the year.
A tight-lipped ex-Marine, Gettelfinger is a man of few words. He summed up his management style in one word — "abrasive" — after being nominated as UAW president. A Gettelfinger biography distributed by the union is only three paragraphs long. "He likes it short," one UAW official said.
Described as a religious man who doesn't drink, smoke or gamble, the folksy Indiana native joined the UAW at age 20, in 1964, when he took a took a job at a Ford assembly plant in Louisville, Ky.
He rose quickly through the UAW ranks, becoming president of his local union in 1984. In the 1990s, as director of UAW Region 3, Gettelfinger successfully led the union's effort to recruit more than 11,000 state employees into the union.
When the auto industry has come under attack, Gettelfinger has used the union's power to fight back. He organized a caravan to Washington in 2001 to help Ford bolster the reputation of the Ford Explorer (search) in the wake of the Firestone crisis.
In 1998, Gettelfinger was named vice president in charge of the UAW's Ford department, where he negotiated with his counterpart and friend Pete Pestillo, the former Ford vice president of labor relations and current chairman of auto parts supplier Visteon Corp. (VC)
"He built up a very strong relationship with Pestillo," Shaiken said. "That is not lost on the other now-CEOs that he deals with across industry."