LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A bronze plaque bearing a portrait of Ron Gettelfinger, president of the United Automobile Workers International, hangs inside the entrance of the union hall named after him.
Each day, scores of factory workers pass by this homage to a hometown hero -- the man charged with preventing America’s blue-collar autoworkers from joining the ranks of the working poor. Some come for information about their retirement pensions. Others, faced with salary cuts and diminished healthcare benefits, seek reassurance.
A few autoworkers simply head to a table and pick up pamphlets advising on ways of “dealing with depression” and “planning your future.”
“It’s grim in the industry,” said Aaron Duke, 51, a forklift driver here at Ford Motor Co.'s Kentucky Truck Plant. “My brother works for Ford. So does my daughter, my son and my son-in-law. We have a lot to lose if the industry keeps going downhill.”
General Motors Corp., Ford and, to a lesser degree, DaimlerChrysler all face swollen union payrolls, idle factories and soaring healthcare and pension costs. Gettelfinger and his UAW sit in the cross hairs of the Big Three’s aim to cut employee and retiree costs as a way to survive.
UAW officials and automakers have long faced each other as adversaries. But as American carmakers see their hold on the domestic market shrinking, the union’s influence has been slipping as well. Labor is now wrestling with frustrations among its rank-and-file members who are angry at both the automakers and the union leadership.
This comes at a time when the UAW, its membership roll declining, has found itself unable to organize workers at U.S. plants operated by foreign car companies.
A generation ago, things were vastly different. In the mid-1960s, American automakers controlled 95% of the U.S. market and sales of imports were a statistical blip. But foreign brands, led by Toyota Motor Corp., steadily won converts with innovative designs, better fuel economy and a reputation for reliability. By 2005, foreign makes accounted for 43% of U.S. car sales, while the Big Three’s share shriveled to 57%.
Foreign automakers also opened 27 North American plants -- employing 134,000 workers -- but most are nonunion. By last year the UAW’s membership had fallen to 557,000 from 1.5 million in the 1970s.
To try to turn things around, GM, whose North American operations bleed cash at the rate of $13 million a day, will lay off 30,000 hourly workers and close 12 plants. Ford, which reported a $1.2-billion loss for the first quarter of this year, plans to close 14 plants and other facilities.
The UAW also will face a bruising round of negotiations next year with GM, Ford and Chrysler over a new labor agreement.
But the union’s most immediate threat comes from Delphi Corp., GM’s leading parts supplier.
Delphi this month petitioned a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in New York to void its UAW contracts and retiree healthcare benefits because it has insufficient money to pay them. Delphi wants to cut union wages drastically -- to as little as $12.50 an hour from the current average of $27 -- and lay off 67% of its nearly 34,000 U.S. hourly workers. The UAW represents 24,000 Delphi workers.
A bankruptcy judge will rule on Delphi’s request next month.
Gettelfinger got a clear sign of his membership’s mood Tuesday, when more than 95% of the UAW-Delphi workers who voted said they approved going on strike against the parts maker.
Wall Street analysts say a Delphi strike could shove GM into bankruptcy. It also could have a devastating domino effect on the rest of the U.S. auto industry.
“Gettelfinger’s legacy will be the epitaph of the UAW,” said Gregg Shotwell, 55, a machine operator at Delphi’s fuel-injector plant in Coopersville, Mich. “I believe we need to strike. There’s no other choice, because we have no other weapon to force GM into more serious negotiations.”
Yet it’s unclear whether Gettelfinger will actually call a strike, or use the threat as a ploy during the Delphi negotiations, said Gary N. Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
“It’s a vote of confidence at the bargaining team and a vote of anger at the automakers,” Chaison said. To actually strike “would be a move of desperation, because [it] would mean mutually assured destruction for both sides.”
Just days before Gettelfinger called for the strike vote, Delphi quietly began running ads in newspapers in Alabama and Michigan looking to hire factory workers, even as it plans to radically cut back its staffing.
Company executives say they are only making sure that the factories will stay open if too many workers take buyout offers. UAW-Delphi workers -- who have taken to using mugs with “W.G.A.F.” or “Who Give A [expletive]” written on them -- insist that the company is looking to hire strike-breakers.
As Delphi’s workers wrestle with their fate, other UAW members nervously ponder whether they might soon face the same future.
“We’re preparing for the worst and praying for the best,” said Ken Lockridge, 38, who helps stamp truck parts at Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant. “We’re all relying on Ron Gettelfinger to do the impossible -- to save us.”
It’s a herculean task that is taking its toll on Gettelfinger, who has looked increasingly exhausted in recent negotiations with management negotiators in Detroit, friends say.
“Ron has one of the toughest, and least enviable, jobs in America,” said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who negotiated Indiana state worker benefits with Gettelfinger.
Born and raised in an impoverished farm community in the Ohio River Valley in southern Indiana, the 61-year-old former Marine and Catholic Sunday school teacher has earned a reputation for being a no-nonsense negotiator.
Gettelfinger doesn’t drink or smoke. He has repeatedly tried to persuade his fellow union members to move next month’s UAW Constitutional Convention from Las Vegas -- where he will run uncontested for reelection -- to a quieter setting.
He’s been willing to compromise with the Big Three to save as many paychecks and benefits as possible. Yet family members, friends and critics alike say he’s also ruthless enough to step on anyone who gets in his way.
Gettelfinger, the first UAW president to graduate from college, has described his own temperament and negotiation style as “abrasive.”
He declined to be interviewed for this article.
“Ron was always willing to cross a boundary if it would help his cause,” said his father, Paul, 92, a former farmer who also worked at a rubber manufacturing plant. “My son likes a good fight. He’ll do what it takes to win.”
Founded in 1935, the UAW has had a long tradition of colorful, outspoken leaders. Homer Martin, who organized some of the earliest workers, faced death threats.
When the Reuther brothers led sit-down strikes at Detroit’s car plants, police fired into the crowd. The union members responded by throwing door hinges and turning on the plants’ fire hoses.
Gettelfinger learned about the benefits of union life as a child. As one in a family of 14, he grew up in rural Frenchtown, Ind., without running water or electricity. He and his siblings rose before dawn to milk the cows and gather eggs. After school, farm chores kept them busy until dusk.
To help pay the bills, Paul Gettelfinger took a job at a nearby unionized DuPont Co. rubber plant in western Louisville. He was paid 25 cents an hour to turn a blend of chemicals into black rubber. “Ron has said that he became a union man the day we went on strike for better pay,” Paul recalled. “It was only 10 days, but it was still hard with no money -- meals got small and things were tough.”
The auto industry -- and the union -- served as a way for Ron Gettelfinger to escape the poverty of his hometown. After graduating from high school, he attended Indiana University in 1963 and studied accounting. But money was tight and he left school and joined the Marine Corps reserves, in part to help pay for college.
Gettelfinger returned to the area near his home and landed a job as a repairman on a chassis line at a Ford manufacturing plant in Louisville. He continued to take night classes at Indiana University and, by 1976, had earned his accounting degree.
Gettelfinger slowly got involved in union politics. In 1978, he was elected bargaining chairman of the Ford plant where he worked. Soon after leaving his plant job to become a union officer, he faced his first negotiating hurdle: Ford planned to close the Louisville plant.
Tensions between the rank and file and Ford management were so bad, locals referred to the region as “Lousy-ville.” Managers and workers routinely snarled at each other, and some employees often missed work or let manufacturing mistakes slide as a way to show their unhappiness.
“Ron went to Ford and asked for a few months to turn things around,” said Eldon Renaud, a longtime friend and president of the UAW Local 2164 in Bowling Green, Ky. “He then went to the workers and said, ‘This is our future. We have to work together. Do you want half a glass empty? Or no glass at all?’ ”
Productivity slowly improved and Ford kept the plant open.
Over the years, Gettelfinger rose through the UAW ranks. Sometimes, his cool demeanor set people on edge: When Charles Deppert, then president of the Indiana AFL-CIO, approached him in the 1990s with the idea of their unions joining forces, Gettelfinger scoffed. “He told me ... ‘We’re better than you. We always will be,’ ” Deppert recalled. “He wasn’t joking. He was a cold and suspicious man with us, and with a lot of other people.”
By the time Gettelfinger was elected UAW president in 2002, the Big Three automakers were long into a downward spiral.
Late last year, Gettelfinger agreed to concessions on healthcare benefits at Ford and GM, forcing retirees to pay medical deductibles and insurance premiums for the first time. The decision outraged many workers, and the union ratified the deals with a thin margin -- 51% at Ford voted in favor, instead of the 75% or more usually seen in UAW-backed efforts.
Even Gettelfinger’s hometown local, UAW 862, voted against the concessions to Ford, 59% to 41%.
“Now, he has to go back to the members and ask for more cuts, and everyone knows there are no guarantees of job security,” said Ruth Milkman, director of the Institute of Industrial Relations at UCLA and author of “Farewell to the Factory,” a GM case study. “It’s very easy to criticize the union leadership, but ... there’s not a lot of great options.”