UAW leader ending an era

first_imgDETROIT – United Auto Workers Vice President Richard Shoemaker grew up in a time when General Motors Corp. claimed about 50 percent of the U.S. auto market and imports were virtually nonexistent. Today, his union is battered by foreign competition and he has watched GM’s market share shrink by more than half. The face of manufacturing has changed, but Shoemaker says the UAW’s mission – and his passion for it – has remained the same since he got his first union card nearly 50 years ago. “That’s what the union’s all about, about people and their hopes and dreams, their aspirations, about the kind of future that they want for themselves and their children,” Shoemaker told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. Shoemaker, 66, announced last week he plans to retire in June after 36 years at the UAW, which oversees 950 local unions and has more than 1.2 million active and retired members. Vice presidents Gerald Bantom, who is in charge of negotiations with Ford Motor Co., and Nate Gooden, who is in charge of negotiations with DaimlerChrysler AG, also are stepping down. UAW leaders typically retire after they reach 65. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORERose Parade grand marshal Rita Moreno talks New Year’s Day outfit and ‘West Side Story’ remake When Shoemaker leaves the union’s headquarters in Detroit, a piece of history goes with him. He is the last person on the UAW staff who was appointed by legendary UAW President Walter Reuther. Reuther appointed Shoemaker to the union’s Detroit headquarters in 1969, the year before he died in a plane crash. Shoemaker remembers Reuther as an inspiring speaker and a progressive who was concerned about issues like the environment, Shoemaker said. “He was one of those people who saw some of the problems years ago that we’re experiencing today,” Shoemaker said. But Reuther might never have imagined today’s UAW, which has 1 million fewer active members than it did when he died. Shoemaker says unions are facing unprecedented competition as well as government reluctance to help manufacturers with tougher trade agreements and relief on health care costs. Shoemaker has been at the center of the UAW’s push to retain relatively high wage and benefit levels for U.S. workers in the midst of those global pressures. He has been negotiating almost constantly since he became a vice president in 1995. As soon as Shoemaker negotiated the end of a strike against GM in 1998, for example, he began talks about GM’s spinoff of Delphi Corp., its parts operation. “At the bargaining table, he’s thorough, meticulous, determined and effective,” said UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, who has worked with Shoemaker since 1992. Gary Cowger, GM’s group vice president for manufacturing and labor relations, called Shoemaker “a very intelligent and experienced bargainer.” “Although he is hardworking, dedicated and tough at the table, I have always found him to be a fair and thoughtful man,” Cowger said in a written statement. Shoemaker’s decisions haven’t always been popular. Some union members spoke out against his recent agreement with GM to require hourly workers and retirees to pay more for their health care. Hourly workers approved the proposal last month by a 61 percent vote. But Oscar Bunch, president of UAW Local 14 in Toledo, Ohio, said workers generally feel Shoemaker is looking out for their interests. Bunch remembers Shoemaker guiding the union expertly through negotiations in 2003 even though most people predicted a strike. “He has a lot of compassion for people. I’ve never seen a guy in his capacity worry about the average person in the plant the way he does,” Bunch said. “He still associates himself with the guy on the plant floor.” Shoemaker began his career right after high school at the same Deere & Co. plant in East Moline, Ill., where his father worked. Shoemaker got a physical at the plant the day he turned 18 and was working there a month later. “In those days, you really had a choice whether you wanted to go to school or whether you wanted to spend a career in the plant,” Shoemaker said. “You were pretty secure in those days if you hired in at one of the major manufacturing plants.” Shoemaker quickly worked his way up union ranks, becoming UAW Local 865’s youngest president ever at the age of 27. The union hall in East Moline was renamed in Shoemaker’s honor two years ago. Despite the pressures of the bargaining table, Shoemaker remains a reserved Midwesterner who rarely loses his temper and speaks in quiet, measured tones. “I don’t change very much from place to place. I try to deal with people the way they deal with me,” Shoemaker said. “But I know how to be a forceful advocate for our position.” On the Net: United Auto Workers: 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img