The United Auto Workers Wednesday overwhelmingly elected Bob King as president, to lead the union into contract talks in 2011 expected to center on Ford Motor Co. and on calls to win back concessions made during the U.S. auto industry's recent crisis.
King, 63, succeeds Ron Gettelfinger, who served eight years as president and oversaw the union during a period of growing difficulty for the U.S. auto industry that culminated with the bankruptcies of General Motors Co and Chrysler Group LLC.
The UAW's top leadership had endorsed King as the successor to Gettelfinger late last year. He assumes the top position of a union whose membership peaked at nearly 1.5 million in 1979, but had fallen to below 400,000 workers by 2009.
King faced a last-minute challenge from Gary Walkowicz, a Ford worker who was part of a committee that led a successful fight to reject additional contract changes that King and Gettelfinger had negotiated for Ford last year.
"Bob has a vision for the future and to build our organization through numbers and strength," said Danny Huddleston, president of UAW Local 1111. "He has a team to move forward with."
King was declared the victor after he reached a majority of votes in a roll call. A handful of delegates supported Walkowicz.
The final vote was 2,115 for King and 74.5 for Walkowicz on a weighted basis. The votes of the nearly 1,100 delegates are weighed according to the size of the locals they represent.
"As we see our corporations begin to prosper, as we've made concessions to let them survive, the equity of return is what Bob will strive for," Huddleston said. "He will try to get us a piece of profit that we deserve. They returned to profitability because of what we did, because we made concessions to help everybody survive."
A University of Michigan graduate, King joined the UAW in 1970 after serving in the U.S. Army. He trained at Ford as an electrician while earning a law degree at the University of Detroit.
Gettelfinger steered the UAW through a series of historic givebacks on wages, pensions and starting wages for new workers at the automakers of about $14 per hour, about half of the $28 base rate for veteran autoworkers.
He also negotiated the creation of healthcare trusts that removed obligations estimated at almost $90 billion from the books of the three Detroit automakers.
The voluntary employee beneficiary associations, or VEBAs, were given ownership stakes in the automakers under the U.S. government-supported reorganizations of Chrysler, which is under the management control of Italy's Fiat SpA, and GM.