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Former welder apt to lead UAW would keep the torch out of talks

United Auto Workers Secretary Treasurer Dennis Williams addresses the crowd during a rally for President Barack Obama on Labor Day in Detroi
United Auto Workers Secretary Treasurer Dennis Williams addresses the crowd during a rally for President Barack Obama on Labor Day in Detroi

By Bernie Woodall

DETROIT (Reuters) - Dennis Williams, expected to become the next leader of the United Auto Workers union, is apt to carry on the less confrontational policies of current president Bob King, union and industry officials said.

Secretary-Treasurer Williams, 60, will most likely head the slate of half a dozen proposed officers to be announced on Thursday by the U.S. union, said several people familiar with the UAW leadership's thinking who asked not to be identified. The group will be up for election at the union's convention next June.

Since the 1940s, candidates picked by the administrative caucus have been elected president. The caucus, which includes national and local union leaders from around the country, will meet to vote on Thursday, ahead of the planned announcement.

One of the current vice presidents, General Holiefield, is retiring and will not be on the slate.

The next president's four-year term will be marked by potentially contentious contract talks with U.S. automakers, pressure to organize foreign-owned plants in the United States and maintain members in right-to-work states.

Adding members will also be a priority. Last year organized labor was squeezed by antiunion forces yet still boosted its numbers. Membership is down 31 percent since 2005.

Williams, who was based for years in Chicago as regional director for an area stretching from Illinois to Wyoming, declined an interview request through a UAW spokeswoman, but those who follow the union said his ascension is no surprise.

"You've seen this coming for a long time," said Troy Clarke, chief executive of truck maker Navistar International Corp, on whose board Williams sits. Clarke said Williams' time with Navistar, which has about 1,700 UAW-represented workers, helped the candidate appreciate how a company operates from the inside.

Williams, a former U.S. Marine, joined the UAW in 1977 as a salvage welder for tractor maker J.I. Case and soon became a local union official. He was appointed to the national bargaining department in 1988 and became regional director in 2001.

Assuming Williams takes over, many union observers foresee a continuation of the status quo.

"He's worked closely with Bob King," said Harley Shaiken, a University of California-Berkeley labor professor and adviser to King. "I don't think there will be a change of direction."

King has overseen an increased alliance with unions outside the United States, an expansion of a two-tiered pay scale and more cooperation with companies in what he called the "UAW of the 21st Century."

To further those goals, Williams brings some high-powered connections. "He's one of the few in the labor movement who was an early supporter of the president and I think Barack Obama is very much aware of that," Shaiken said. "That opens doors."

THE STRATEGY OF DEEP RELATIONSHIPS

If elected, Williams would lead the UAW during what are expected to be rugged labor negotiations in 2015 with the three major U.S. automakers, General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co and Chrysler Group LLC, a unit of Fiat.

Raises for veteran workers were not granted in the last round of talks, and newer workers who make less on the two-tier wage scale are apt to agitate for the elimination of the scale. But maintaining U.S. auto jobs is also important to the union, and the present system has helped level labor costs between U.S. manufacturers and foreign companies with domestic plants like Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co.

Williams would have to continue to organize those foreign-owned auto plants, which so far King has been unable to do despite a mighty and expensive effort. The union says it is working closely with Volkswagen AG so it can represent employees at the Tennessee plant.

Then there's Michigan, which earlier this year became a right-to-work state, where union dues cannot be compulsory.

Convincing UAW members there and in other states that have or may adopt right-to-work laws will require Williams to employ what are said to be well-honed negotiating skills.

Recently the UAW has been attempting to develop deep relationships with counterparts to avoid hostile talks.

That suits Williams' style, Clarke said. "You can have very candid and, at times, very difficult conversations, and as long as you can talk to the guy the following day, the ability to bargain and negotiate continues."

Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts, said the expectation that Williams would be much like his predecessor is common among contemporary labor unions.

"We don't have firebrands anymore. We don't have charismatic leaders," said Chaison. "One fades into another."

That's all right, Chaison said.

"Workers don't need fiery speeches. They want someone who can be successful at the bargaining table."

(This story corrects attribution in quote in third to last paragraph to Gary Chaison)

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Prudence Crowther)

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