New UAW President: Charismatic, Confrontational, Savvy
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) _ Taking over as president of the United Auto Workers union won’t alter the way that Stephen P. Yokich operates. At least that’s his claim.
``It’s a little late in life for me to change,″ said Yokich, a 59-year-old UAW vice president. Yokich was elected Wednesday to succeed Owen Bieber, who is retiring after 12 years as president of the 826,000-member union.
But the UAW could benefit from Yokich’s aggressive ways. The group has shrunk by half since 1979 and must find ways to build membership and political power by organizing auto parts plants, Japanese- and German-owned auto factories and workers in industries that don’t have anything to do with cars and trucks.
``He’s a very dynamic and charismatic leader assuming the presidency at a pivotal point for the union,″ said Harley Shaiken, a University of California-Berkeley professor who studies organized labor.
He spoke outside the Anaheim Convention Center, where the UAW is holding its triennial convention.
Yokich has always been an aggressive organizer. He headed the UAW’s organizing department when it won the campaign that created the union’s largest local, more than 20,000 state employees in Michigan.
He’s known among union members as a scrapper, not afraid of confrontation.
``Yokich is receptive to taking on the corporations during the good times,″ said Dave Yettaw, president of UAW Local 599 in Flint, Mich., who is part of the union’s dissident New Directions caucus. ``He’s more aggressive (than Bieber) in terms of trade union principles.″
Yokich has allowed seven local strikes against GM in the past 18 months, each winning guarantees from the automaker that saved jobs or provided for new work at the plants involved.
Those confrontations have defused New Directions’ complaints against ``jointness,″ programs that have increasingly given the union a role in company decision-making on training, health and safety issues, the pursuit of manufacturing efficiency and quality.
Critics have contended such programs have made the union-management relationship too cozy, at the expense of workers.
Yokich bristles a bit at the criticisms. He says rank-and-file UAW members understand the importance of the programs, and that they have worked.
Yokich was born in Detroit and grew up in a union family. Both his parents and both grandfathers were active in the UAW. After four years in the Air Force, he became a skilled trades apprentice at Heidrich Tool and Die Co. in Oak Park, Mich., in 1956 and quickly became active in UAW Local 155, where his father had been shop steward.
After rising through the 10,000-member local and regional posts, he has has stepped through most of the union’s top jobs.
Yokich is a member of the Democratic National Committee and the party’s State Central Committee in Michigan, where he ran the UAW’s political arm from 1983 through 1989.
His son and daughter have continued the family tradition in labor and politics. Stephen Jr. is a lawyer who works for the union in Washington. Tracey Yokich is a Democratic member of the Michigan House of Representatives.
Yokich and his wife, Tekla, live in St. Clair Shores, a Detroit suburb.