United Auto Workers leaders on Wednesday nominated top Ford Motor Co. negotiator Bob King to be the union's next president, saying King is the right person to lead the union as it emerges from a tumultuous year that saw painful contract concessions and automaker bankruptcies.
UAW members will elect a new president at a convention in June. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger is stepping down because of a long-standing union policy of officers retiring at age 65.
Gettelfinger announced King's nomination at a meeting of several hundred union leaders near Detroit. King is the nominee for the administration caucus, a group within the union led by Gettelfinger, but other groups are free to nominate candidates as well. However, Gettelfinger said he expects little opposition to King, noting that the union's executive board has unanimously endorsed the candidate.
Gettelfinger called the 63-year-old King "relentless and tenacious" and a great negotiator.
"He's just a common person who believes in working people," Gettelfinger said.
King said he was humbled by the nomination. He declined to discuss his plans for the union until he is elected, but did say continued organizing to get new members into the union would be a priority.
"The more workers you have organized in any sector, the more power you have at the bargaining table," he said.
King has long been considered a possible candidate for the union's presidency. He started working for Ford in 1970 after graduating from the University of Michigan and serving in the U.S. Army. King, who also has a law degree, was re-elected to his third term as a union vice president in 2006.
Still, King's future appeared to be in jeopardy last fall when workers overwhelmingly rejected cost-cutting contract changes that King and Ford had agreed to. Workers at the Dearborn Truck Plant near Detroit honked horns and shouted down King when he visited to explain the changes.
The vote left Ford at a cost disadvantage to its rivals, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, and labor experts viewed the incident as a slap to King and other union leaders.
Gettelfinger blamed himself for that vote, saying workers had "concession fatigue" and that they didn't fully understand the agreement.
"It got away from us," he said.
Gettelfinger said he thinks things are improving for the UAW after a year that saw the bankruptcies of General Motors Co. and Chrysler LLC and contract concessions agreed to by members.
"I truly believe that we've bottomed out and things will start stabilizing," he said.
Gettelfinger said UAW Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Bunn and lead General Motors Co. negotiator Cal Rapson also are retiring. UAW regional directors Dennis Williams and Joe Ashton are running for those seats. Lead Chrysler LLC negotiator General Holiefield is running for re-election.
Separately, Gettelfinger said the union is ready to begin administering a trust to fund retiree health care. The trust, known as a voluntary employees beneficiary association, or VEBA, is scheduled to take over retiree health care from GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler on Jan. 1. It will administer care for more than 600,000 retirees and spouses.
The UAW and the automakers agreed to form the VEBA as part of contract negotiations in 2007 because the automakers wanted to take the cost of retiree health care off their books. Gettelfinger said there will be an initial transfer of $21 billion into the VEBA fund on Jan. 1 from the automakers.