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Former UAW President Dies At 66

August 16, 2002

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DETROIT (AP) _ Stephen P. Yokich, the former two-term president of the United Auto Workers known for never shying away from a fight to improve the lives of union members, died Friday. He was 66.

A spokesman at St. John Hospital said Yokich died at 9:45 a.m. of a stroke he suffered Thursday. He had been treated for prostate cancer several years ago.

Colleagues and friends remembered him as tough, smart, gruff _ a great leader and a great friend.

``Words cannot begin to express the sadness and loss the UAW family feels over the death of our friend and brother Stephen P. Yokich,″ UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said in a statement.

``Our union lost a powerful and eloquent leader today, and working people all over the world have lost a tireless advocate for economic and social justice.″

Yokich was born six days before the founding of the UAW and served as its president from 1995 to 2002. He retired in June.

``The last seven years have been the most satisfying years and the hardest years I’ve had in my whole career,″ Yokich said in his June 6 farewell address at the UAW convention in Las Vegas.

``I can’t find the words to tell you how grateful I am to you and all the members of the UAW for giving me this opportunity to serve this union.″

Just before the union’s June convention, Local 6000 president Mary Ettinger of Lansing said she and some other members had dinner with Yokich, who said he was looking forward to retirement.

``Someone asked him about retirement and he said, `I’m going to be out on my boat for three months and the only person who will be able to get a hold of me will be with me.‴

While media-shy with a gruff demeanor, he was best known as a bare-knuckle fighter for workers’ rights.

``He gave us a lot of benefits and did so much on job security,″ said Jeff Washington, president of UAW Local 900 in Wayne.

St. Louis, Mo., UAW Local 325 president Ken Dearing called Yokich ``a great president.″

Yokich also made it a priority to repair relationships with automakers after disputes.

Sean McAlinden, a labor expert and economist with the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said following the 1998 strikes against General Motors Corp. in Flint, Yokich worked with UAW vice president Dick Shoemaker to create a positive relationship with the automaker. McAlinden said that is largely responsible for GM’s improving manufacturing performance.

``We have lost a respected business partner, a passionate leader in community and union relations, and most importantly, a good and honorable man,″ GM chairman Jack Smith said.

Ford Motor Co. chairman and CEO Bill Ford Jr. said he was ``deeply saddened″ by Yokich’s passing.

``To me he was a good friend and adviser,″ Ford said.

Yokich also used restraint when DaimlerChrysler AG said it would need to cut jobs and plants to save the Chrysler Group, choosing not to strike or try to force the company to change its plans.

``He could have taken on DaimlerChrysler, but said instead, `Let’s work with these guys, labor has to be in the game,‴ said David Cole, president of the Center for Automotive Research. ``He was a very smart guy.″

During his presidency, Yokich won lucrative contracts for a union that steadily lost membership while failing to make inroads at U.S. factories owned by foreign automakers.

``He did a great job for his members moving the debate and negotiations into job security, which is an area that now is one of the most important areas for unions in light of all the free trade agreements,″ Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney said.

The 1999 national contract raised members’ pay to more than $24 an hour by the end of its fourth year. It included a $1,350 lump-sum payment and added an Election Day holiday and a four-year freeze on closing U.S. Big Three plants.

The contract also created Family Service and Learning Centers jointly run by the UAW and Ford. One of the first to open was named for Yokich. The centers provide free services such as a library and computers, while child care and some classes _ ranging from driver education and tax planning to self-defense and home repair _ carry charges.

The contract was the most lucrative in union history, but it covered the fewest active UAW members since the 1940s. The union’s overall membership dwindled from 1.5 million in 1979 to 826,000 by the time Yokich became president in 1995 _ and to about 672,000 at the end of 2001.

One area where Yokich did not succeed was organizing workers at U.S. auto plants owned by foreign automakers, the so-called ``transplants.″

The failure to win over those workers was not entirely Yokich’s fault, Cole said. The plants, except for the Honda plant in Ohio, are in economically depressed areas of traditionally nonunion states.

``It’s not related to Steve. The wall was awfully high. These were fabulous jobs and giving up a portion of their salary for union dues was a hard sell,″ Cole said.

Critics also accused Yokich of losing touch with the rank and file while becoming cozy with corporate executives.

Yokich responded that he allowed seven local strikes against GM during the 18-month period leading to his election as president. Each walkout resulted in guarantees from the automaker that saved jobs or provided new work at the plants involved.

Yokich was vice president of the union’s Ford Division from 1983-89 and headed its GM Division from 1989 until his election as president.

Recalling his years as vice president of the union’s Ford and General Motors divisions, he said: ``I walked every plant in the system. I walked and talked to the membership and tried to find out what was on their minds, and that helped me out a lot.

``It’s important to let people know who you are. I’m no different from any person working on the line; I came up from the plant floor.″

Yokich succeeded Owen Bieber as UAW president in 1995. He did not run again earlier this year because an informal union policy discourages seeking a new term after reaching 65. Gettelfinger was elected the new president.

Yokich directed the UAW’s organizing department from 1983 to 1989, with most of his success coming outside the auto industry. Some 22,000 State of Michigan workers joined the union in 1985.

Born Aug. 20, 1935 in Detroit to parents and grandparents who were UAW members, Yokich served four years in the U.S. Air Force before becoming an apprentice at a tool and die shop in 1956.

He held a series of offices with Local 155 before union president Walter Reuther appointed him to the Region 1 staff in 1969. Yokich was elected Region 1 director in 1977. From 1980 to 1983, Yokich directed the UAW’s Agricultural Implement Department and headed the union’s Skilled Trades Department from 1980 to 1995.

Yokich is survived by his wife, Tekla, and children Tracy and Stephen A. Yokich.


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