DETROIT - As a negotiator, Ron Gettelfinger, the United Auto Workers president, is known more for the carrot than the stick. Just don't mistake him for easygoing.
This year, he briefly banned Marines stationed near Solidarity House, the union's headquarters, from parking in the union lot if they drove foreign cars or had Bush bumper stickers. And in 2001, shortly after being nominated for the union presidency, he summed up his style in one word: "abrasive."
This summer, as he faces the fight of his union life in a showdown with General Motors Corp., his penchant for compromising with the beleaguered domestic automakers is checked by a belief that his workers deserve their wages and health care benefits.
Whether he chooses the carrot or stick will have broad implications for the future of the American autoworker and help determine whether the Big Three automakers can cut costs to compete against Toyota and other foreign rivals with lower labor costs.
Rick Wagoner, GM's chief executive, is betting he can force Gettelfinger to blink. Fighting for his job after GM's $1.1 billion first-quarter loss, Wagoner is threatening to make steep cuts to the health benefits with or without the union's support, a hard line that has puzzled some analysts.
Gettelfinger, a 60-year-old former Marine, says he is willing to offer some help to GM, but will not be pushed into a corner and will not reopen the company's labor contract before it expires in 2007.
Whether the outcome leads him to settle or strike is an open question.
"I can be as cooperative as they'll let you be and as militant as they'll make you be," Gettelfinger said of his approach in an interview last week at Solidarity House. "I don't think saber-rattling and that stuff ... I don't see a lot of value in it. But I think if people think that cooperation means capitulation, they'll be in for a surprise, and I've always said that. Cooperation is certainly not capitulation."
What seems increasingly clear is that Gettelfinger's job as president is the most difficult since the early days of the UAW, which turns 70 this summer.
In May, Standard & Poor's cut the bond ratings of both GM and Ford Motor Co. to junk, or below investment grade status. Several major suppliers of auto parts are in bankruptcy, and the largest, Delphi, is facing a widening accounting scandal.
"What I faced, the big crisis was Chrysler," said Douglas A. Fraser, 88, who was president of the UAW in the early 1980s, when Chrysler needed a bailout from the government and its union. "There was real danger that Chrysler would go bankrupt, but GM and Ford were in pretty fair shape."
As for Gettelfinger's troubles, however, Fraser said, "he's got the whole industry."
Gettelfinger, is a lean man with a trim moustache. He's a Catholic. He doesn't drink. He comes across as either steely or shy, depending on when you catch him. Raised on a farm in rural Indiana, he is the fifth of 12 brothers and sisters. He gets to work at sunrise and can breathe fire in speeches decrying Republicans or Chinese wages, and he portrays national health care as a moral and competitive necessity.
The union's founder, Walter P. Reuther, was famously captured by a photographer getting pummeled by a grim detail of fedora-clad security men in front of a Ford plant in the 1930s. Reuther was a highly visible public figure whose career was spent pushing the auto industry to share its accumulating wealth.
Gettelfinger is part of a second generation that rose during a gradually more cooperative era of relations, with numerous fits and starts. He and his immediate predecessors have forsaken the union's more populist role, largely shunning publicity and opting for a more insular approach. For example, union officials rarely consent to interviews.
Since 1980, the union's membership has fallen by half, from 1.5 million to about 700,000 today, as domestic auto jobs have vanished, or moved to China, Mexico or to plants in the South run by foreign competitors.
Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said Gettelfinger focuses on "defensive action. ... He understands the need to do some public posturing in bargaining for the membership," he said, "but he also understands the need to protect jobs."
Increasingly, Gettelfinger and Wagoner are looking like the last two members of a long and bountiful dinner party who end up fighting over who gets stuck with the check. Health care benefits for hourly workers at the Big Three domestic carmakers have long been the gold standard of the American blue-collar worker, with no deductibles or monthly premiums. But most analysts consider these benefits unsustainable.
GM spends nearly $6 billion a year to provide benefits to 1.1 million Americans and has 2 1/2 retirees for every active worker. More important, GM spends about $1,500 for each American vehicle on health care, an amount believed to be roughly $1,000 more per car than Toyota.
Whatever Gettelfinger gives back to GM would ripple across the industry. Because Ford and Chrysler have parallel contracts, they will demand similar concessions. It could also influence benefits offered at newer American plants run by foreign competitors who have tried to keep unions out by offering comparable compensation.
"I know these decisions are going to be heart-wrenching for him," said Eldon Renaud, the president of a union local in Bowling Green, Ind., who has known Gettelfinger for many years.
"Through no fault of your own, because the company continues to build big cars and then we get into a fuel crunch and the cars don't sell as well, then you're put in a position that you have to take back what you fought so hard to negotiate," he added. "That's the hardest thing for a union leader to do."
Gettelfinger started as an assembly line worker at a Ford plant in Louisville and later earned a degree in accounting from Indiana University - he is the first UAW president to graduate from college. Relations were so bad that Ford referred to the plant as "Lousyville." When he became a union official at the plant in the 1970s, he remembers the assistant plant manager greeting him by saying "he didn't shake hands with union representatives."
"But then when he needed something, I told him I didn't negotiate with assistant plant managers, so it worked out," Gettelfinger said.
He worked to improve relations, though, and rose through the ranks to become the union's top official dealing with Ford, which has not had a strike in two decades. By contrast, GM and the union faced off in a series of strikes through 1998 as the company shifted work abroad, though relations had been improving.
Gettelfinger was propelled to the top union position after he negotiated favorable terms for workers at Visteon, the Ford parts division that was spun off in 2000. But this year, the contract came back to haunt Ford, which agreed to take back Visteon's unionized work force because the supplier faced a financial crisis - a sign that deals negotiated in more prosperous times can be difficult to sustain.
Gettelfinger became union president in 2002. In his first collective bargaining session the next year, he conducted unprecedented simultaneous negotiations with the Big Three, reaching quick deals with all of them and giving modest ground by allowing increases in co-payments for prescription drugs. The negotiations "clearly showed his understanding of when to fight and when to move on," said Chaison.
"Trying to back him into a corner would not be a wise strategy," said Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat who negotiated with Gettelfinger over state workers' benefits when he was the Indiana governor and Gettelfinger was the UAW's regional director.
Gettelfinger said GM in 2005 is not Chrysler in 1981. GM is still paying more than $1 billion in dividends annually, has a $20 billion cash cushion thought to be enough for several years and Wagoner has not offered to cut his compensation, valued at $10 million last year.
Gettelfinger also said that GM must make a clear case to him that concessions are necessary. "If somebody makes a claim about how bad things are, then I'm assuming they want to support that and back it up," he said.
Education: A former Marine. Accounting degree from Indiana University.
Career highlights: Began his career in the auto industry on the assembly line at a Ford plant in Louisville, Ky., where he became a union official in the 1970s. Propelled to leadership after negotiating a contract for Visteon workers. UAW president since 2002.