yokich1.jpgIt seems the ghost of union leaders past may be haunting the union halls of many U.S. automakers.

Something happened on the way to get a union contract at Chrysler. The unexpected.

Everyone thought workers would just jump in line and agree to a host of concessions because the union leadership wanted it that way.

Well, many of the workers around the country are saying “no”, and that’s making local union presidents on up a bit pissed off.

Many years ago, I met Stephen Yokich, a tough talking, hard-ass, and president of the UAW. (United Auto Workers). He didn’t take any guff from no one, and auto executives knew they’d face a tough battle whenever they sat at the bargaining table with the guy.

Yokich was at the helm of the UAW in the late 1990s when GM workers walked off the job for seven weeks, crippling the auto giant but winning concessions for assembly employees.

He wasn’t a stupid man. I remember my first encounter with the guy when I was covering a story on a local Delaware plant. Even though he oversaw tons of plants nationwide, he knew who I was, having read many of the stories I had written. He took time to do research on a lowly reporter from a small newspaper in a small town where two of auto plants were based.

That made me realize he probably knew his stuff when it came to his perceived enemies…you know, management.

Recently, I called one of my favorite auto analysts David Cole with the Center for Automotive Research. I wanted to know, since he knew Yokich well, whether he thought the late UAW leader would be turning over in his grave if he saw how much the present UAW chief, Ron Gettelfinger, was giving away in union concessions.

“I don’t think Yokich could have done what Gettelfinger did. He didn’t have the personality or relationships to allow him to do this. He was more confrontational,” Cole says.

I asked Cole if he thought Gettelfinger has given up too much.

“If they didn’t do it it would have killed at least one of the companies,” he explains about the Big Three automakers that are struggling because they’ve been unable to compete with their foreign counterparts.

It’s about jobs, he adds. “They’re trying to hold onto something or end up losing everything.”

The U.S. automakers have been dying for a few years now, and no help from government, workers or fancy car commercials appears to be helping them get that one foot out of the grave. Now, they’re handing over to the union their responsibilities to provide healthcare to retirees, and they’re cutting wages for those employees at the bottom rung of the rank and file. Will this be enough already?

There’s a bigger issue here than just the auto industry folks.

Other unions, in other industries have handed over their heads on a platter when it came to negotiation time because of fears they companies they worked for were heading for the toilet. Airline workers are the most recent example. Many of them are now crying foul because as their airlines come back from the brink the money is not being spread among those who sacrificed. And top executives appear to be more concerned with lining their own pockets than giving their employees back a bit of what they gave up.

Analysts say this is a different world today. How different is it really?

It’s definitely not the 70s or 80s when unions and workers had more power, and wages and benefits slowly rose instead of declining as they are today, a time when we have the biggest disparity in history between the rich and poor.

Is Yokich rolling over in his grave?

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