DETROIT - As a negotiator, Ron Gettelfinger, the United Auto Workers president, is known more for the carrot than the stick. Just don't mistake him for easygoing.
This year, he briefly banned Marines stationed near Solidarity House, the union's headquarters, from parking in the union lot if they drove foreign cars or had Bush bumper stickers. And in 2001, shortly after being nominated for the union presidency, he summed up his style in one word: "abrasive."
This summer, as he faces the fight of his union life in a showdown with General Motors Corp., his penchant for compromising with the beleaguered domestic automakers is checked by a belief that his workers deserve their wages and health care benefits.
Whether he chooses the carrot or stick will have broad implications for the future of the American autoworker and help determine whether the Big Three automakers can cut costs to compete against Toyota and other foreign rivals with lower labor costs.
Rick Wagoner, GM's chief executive, is betting he can force Gettelfinger to blink. Fighting for his job after GM's $1.1 billion first-quarter loss, Wagoner is threatening to make steep cuts to the health benefits with or without the union's support, a hard line that has puzzled some analysts.
Gettelfinger, a 60-year-old former Marine, says he is willing to offer some help to GM, but will not be pushed into a corner and will not reopen the company's labor contract before it expires in 2007.
Whether the outcome leads him to settle or strike is an open question.
"I can be as cooperative as they'll let you be and as militant as they'll make you be," Gettelfinger said of his approach in an interview last week at Solidarity House. "I don't think saber-rattling and that stuff ... I don't see a lot of value in it. But I think if people think that cooperation means capitulation, they'll be in for a surprise, and I've always said that. Cooperation is certainly not capitulation."
What seems increasingly clear is that Gettelfinger's job as president is the most difficult since the early days of the UAW, which turns 70 this summer.
In May, Standard & Poor's cut the bond ratings of both GM and Ford Motor Co. to junk, or below investment grade status. Several major suppliers of auto parts are in bankruptcy, and the largest, Delphi, is facing a widening accounting scandal.
"What I faced, the big crisis was Chrysler," said Douglas A. Fraser, 88, who was president of the UAW in the early 1980s, when Chrysler needed a bailout from the government and its union. "There was real danger that Chrysler would go bankrupt, but GM and Ford were in pretty fair shape."
As for Gettelfinger's troubles, however, Fraser said, "he's got the whole industry."
Gettelfinger, is a lean man with a trim moustache. He's a Catholic. He doesn't drink. He comes across as either steely or shy, depending on when you catch him. Raised on a farm in rural Indiana, he is the fifth of 12 brothers and sisters. He gets to work at sunrise and can breathe fire in speeches decrying Republicans or Chinese wages, and he portrays national health care as a moral and competitive necessity.
The union's founder, Walter P. Reuther, was famously captured by a photographer getting pummeled by a grim detail of fedora-clad security men in front of a Ford plant in the 1930s. Reuther was a highly visible public figure whose career was spent pushing the auto industry to share its accumulating wealth.
Gettelfinger is part of a second generation that rose during a gradually more cooperative era of relations, with numerous fits and starts. He and his immediate predecessors have forsaken the union's more populist role, largely shunning publicity and opting for a more insular approach. For example, union officials rarely consent to interviews.
Since 1980, the union's membership has fallen by half, from 1.5 million to about 700,000 today, as domestic auto jobs have vanished, or moved to China, Mexico or to plants in the South run by foreign competitors.
Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said Gettelfinger focuses on "defensive action. ... He understands the need to do some public posturing in bargaining for the membership," he said, "but he also understands the need to protect jobs."
Increasingly, Gettelfinger and Wagoner are looking like the last two members of a long and bountiful dinner party who end up fighting over who gets stuck with the check. Health care benefits for hourly workers at the Big Three domestic carmakers have long been the gold standard of the American blue-collar worker, with no deductibles or monthly premiums. But most analysts consider these benefits unsustainable.
GM spends nearly $6 billion a year to provide benefits to 1.1 million Americans and has 2 1/2 retirees for every active worker. More important, GM spends about $1,500 for each American vehicle on health care, an amount believed to be roughly $1,000 more per car than Toyota.