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UAW chief calls for 'new solutions' to Detroit woes


LAS VEGAS -- In his soft, southern Indiana drawl, Ron Gettelfinger stared out yesterday at the vast convention floor and talked about the idea that the United Auto Workers union's epitaph has already been written.

"They think we've run out of gas intellectually and emotionally, that we've lost our will and our nerve," the UAW president went on. "Some even question our solidarity."

Then with his voice rising and a clenched fist hammering on the lectern, Gettelfinger delivered a line that brought the union convention's more than 1,300 delegates to their feet and cheering loudly.

"Well, we've got news for them," said the one-time U.S. Marine, who is expected to be re-elected this week. "We're not going to surrender. We're not going to lower our sights, give up our dreams," Gettelfinger said, his words almost smothered out by applause.

For a union beset by losses and whose membership has plummeted from 1.5 million to just fewer than 600,000 since 1979, the 61-year-old union president's message hardly ignored the UAW's headaches.

Ticking off numbers detailing the 16 percent decline in the Big Three's share of the U.S. auto market in the past decade and the loss of 160,000 auto-parts jobs since 2000, Gettelfinger said such challenges can't be "ridden out."

"They demand new and farsighted solutions, and we must be an integral part of developing those solutions," he said. He did not spell out the new steps.

Yet the message to the membership was also one of fighting back. It talked of tough times, tough choices and a tougher stance toward the foes of the 71-year-old union.

"Everything that we fought for on the bargaining table is under attack," Gettelfinger said.

Harley Shaiken, a veteran UAW observer and labor expert at the University of California at Berkeley, said, "He didn't sugarcoat the gravity of the situation, but he left an optimistic feeling in the hall."

In his speech, Gettelfinger lambasted the Bush White House for everything from its unfriendly attitude toward labor unions to what he described as the administration's failure to provide an even playing field for embattled U.S. automakers.

The UAW chief said a lack of action on a single-payer national health care plan by the Bush administration has hurt the domestic auto industry. The president, he said, has stood on the sidelines as health care costs soar out of control.

The union leader also lashed out at companies such as Delphi Corp., the giant parts marker, accusing them of abusing the nation's bankruptcy laws, and vowing to push for bankruptcy law reform.

Indeed, Gettelfinger offered little praise for Delphi, which reached an agreement for a buyout deal that could extend to nearly all of the union's 22,000 Delphi workers.

In his nearly one-hour speech, Gettelfinger offered no new details on the union's negotiations with Delphi, which has threatened to slash wages for its workers in the United States.

He spoke of the union's goal of "taking steps to ease the pains" of the more than 60,000 Auto Workers facing job losses with Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. in coming years.

But Gettelfinger, who has been praised by auto industry executives for fostering more cooperation with them, also made it clear that the union does not support the automakers' layoff strategies.

"In the long run, shedding workers and trimming capacity is not a winning strategy," he said.

Praising a stepped-up organizing effort and affiliations with smaller, independent unions for adding 66,000 members in the past four years, Gettelfinger conceded that they were not enough to overcome the UAW's steady decline.

As for the spread of union-free, foreign-owned auto plants across the United States, Gettelfinger said the union was trying some "subtle and some not subtle" approaches to gain a first-time foothold in the factories.

To cope with declining revenue as its membership has shrunk, Gettelfinger said the union has cut its staff by 20 percent in the past four years.

Also, UAW documents released at the convention show that the union's general fund has shrunk from $116 million in 1998 to $37 million last year. The reports also show that the emergency fund the union created four years ago has grown to $87 million.

One of the toughest decisions he has made as union leader, Gettelfinger said, was to require some retirees at General Motors and Ford last year to contribute to their health care costs.

As delegates milled about after the speech, Bill Guinan, a committeeman from Local 685 in Kokomo, Ind., was among those fired up by the words he had just heard. Yet he was also a bit skeptical.

"It's a labor speech," he said. "Talking is one thing. Backing it up is something else."

Stephen Franklin writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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