UAW president, Frenchtown native, grants interviews, accepts IUS award
United Auto Workers president and Frenchtown native Ron Gettelfinger has been described as ‘media shy,’ but the pragmatic leader known for looking at both sides of the picture has plenty to say.
Gettelfinger was presented with the 2004 Distinguished Alumni Award during commencement ceremonies at Indiana University Southeast yesterday and, uncharacteristically, conducted a slew of interviews.
‘When the university contacted me, I was sort of overwhelmed by this award. This is not so much about me as about IUS,’ Gettelfinger said of granting the interviews.
Gettelfinger, 59, presents himself as neither shy nor flamboyant. He’s businesslike with humble roots and a clear sense of purpose.
Gettelfinger grew up a poor farm boy in the 1950s, attending his first four years of school in a two-room schoolhouse. He then attended St. Joseph School and North Central High School, graduating in 1962.
Gettelfinger graduated from IUS with a bachelor’s degree in business in 1976.
Climbing from a chassis repair line in Louisville to UAW president in Motor City, Gettelfinger is living his American dream, but he doesn’t take much credit.
‘I didn’t do a lot myself. It’s always been a team of people who have been behind me and supported me and placed me in leadership positions,’ he said.
The UAW represents a broad base of Indiana workers, and not just auto workers. In fact, about 15,000 state employees are members.
‘Without a union, workers are at the will of the employer. A contract through a union provides equity and justice in the workplace and serves as a check and balance between worker and employer,’ Gettelfinger said.
‘As union leaders, we want all companies to be successful where we represent workers so our members can share in the profits.
‘If the average person would think about it, they have a lot of contracts, whether it’s with banks or insurance companies, builders, homeowners associations.
‘So why doesn’t it make sense to have a contract with your employer?’ he said.
Gettelfinger addressed a big issue facing the UAW today, Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China. PNTR, passed in 2001, is opposed by the UAW and other unions.
Since PNTR’s passing, the trade deficit with China has grown from $69 billion to $124 billion, and the overall trade deficit has escalated to $489 billion, Gettelfinger said.
‘It has never been the position of our union that we are against trade. We are for fair trade,’ he said.
Under PNTR, no environmental or human rights issues are being negotiated with trade, nor do workers have any voice in the negotiations process, Gettelfinger said.
‘If you look at 10 years of NAFTA, the standard of living and real wages and benefits in Mexico have gone down. Jobs are leaving Mexico and going to China,’ he said.
‘American manufacturing jobs are at their lowest (fewest) level in 41 years. We are destroying the middle class and consumer base in this country unless we make those trade agreements fair, protect us from import surges, incorporate workers rights and put in negotiable provisions,’ he said.