Bob King Picked — Not Elected — To Lead UAW

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Bill Pugliano / Getty

United Auto Workers President Bob King

Having won the support of handful of colleagues, Bob King, a former 1960s-style activist who was once considered too radical to hold union office, is now the designated candidate to succeed Ron Gettelfinger as president of the United Auto Workers.

King, 63, has served as one of Gettelfinger's, top lieutenants in recent years and handled several rounds of delicate negotiations with the Ford Motor Co. as the union tried to navigate the big downturn in the U.S. auto industry and the changes it forced in union contracts. Gettelfinger, 65, will relinquish the presidency at the UAW's next convention in June.

King is viewed favorably both by UAW leadership and by outsiders. "Ron is very direct. Bob is a bit more cerebral," says Ford Motor Co. Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., who has dealt extensively with both union leaders. Labor experts including Harley Shaiken, a University of California-Berkeley labor-relations professor, say King, who completed an electrician's apprenticeship while working at Ford in the early 1970s and simultaneously finished a law degree at the University of Detroit, is the logical choice to succeed Gettlefinger.

Maybe so, but the strange thing is that UAW members don't get to formally express their feelings about King. For more than 60 years, the UAW's top leadership has blocked attempts to permit union members to vote directly for the union presidency. Rather, as the UAW's new designated nominee, King has the support of the union executive board, which has picked the UAW presidents since the late 1940s through series of closed caucuses.

Unions such as the Teamsters and the Steelworkers have shifted to selecting their presidents by direct membership vote, but the UAW leaders remain actively opposed to the idea, claiming a direct vote would open the union to outside influence ranging from employers and subversives to organized crime. However, Jerry Tucker, a former member of the UAW board, says the current practice is outmoded and fundamentally anti-democratic. Tucker has actively campaigned to allow member voting in such elections. "It might not change the outcome. But it would force the leadership to become more accountable," he says. As it now stands, the UAW presidency is basically decided by the vote of a 13-member board as well as certain union officers who privately caucus — staff members are excluded. King waged a savvy campaign for the presidency, promising to address the priorities of each board member, according to sources familiar with the campaign.

Largely because of the auto industry crisis, Gettelfinger now has complete access to top executives at all three of Detroit's automakers. King will enjoy the same access, union insiders predicted.

However, King will inherit a union that has watched big contract gains made over the last two generations simply melt away as the auto industry downturn worsened. Union members hired prior to the current downturn continue to make $28 per hour. But when the industry recovers and the Detroit Three will hire new employees, they will only be guaranteed $14 per hour.

For now, union pensions at GM, Chrysler and Ford appear safe. But starting in January 2010, the union will become partially responsible for the VEBA, which now oversees and funds retiree health care. The resources devoted to the VEBA have been badly depleted by the bankruptcies at GM and Chrysler, creating doubts about how long they can sustain current benefit levels. The danger is that with thousand of union members retiring early in the past three years, the $21 billion in VEBA assets could be drained before the retirees qualify for Medicare.

Given the challenges that a greatly shrunken UAW now faces, future president King may soon wish he had a mandate from the rank and file members.