After 45 years of service to the United Auto Workers union, including the last six as president, Stephen P. Yokich appears ready to pass the leadership mantle to Ron Gettelfinger, who, like Mr. Yokich before him, has led the UAW's National Ford Dept.

Introduced last month as the choice of senior union officials to succeed the 66-year-old Mr. Yokich, who is retiring, Mr. Gettelfinger tells reporters his top priority is to increase UAW membership.

The nomination by the UAW's administrative caucus virtually assures Mr. Gettelfinger will become the union's ninth president at its June convention. He currently holds the title of vice president and oversees bargaining units at Ford, Visteon Corp. and the union's aerospace interests.

Mr. Yokich bristles at reports that UAW membership has fallen to 600,000, saying that the figure reflects the number of members actively employed during the month of December. “We only work two weeks in December,” he says. “Our membership is still 732,000 people and hasn't changed.”

In the late 1970s, the UAW boasted more than 1 million members. However, Mr. Yokich acknowledges one decline — in the country's industrial base. “We've got some real problems,” he says, claiming the news media in Detroit are “too close” to corporate America to recognize “what's really happening.”

Asked about future organizing drives in the wake of the union's recent failure to organize workers at Nissan Motor Mfg. Corp. U.S.A.'s assembly plant in Smyrna, TN, Mr. Yokich accuses the media of focusing only on the low points. Last year, the UAW won 85 of 117 organizing drives that brought more than 21,000 members into the Solidarity House fold.

Of major U.S. assembly plants that remain non-union, Mr. Yokich hints the Mercedes facility in Vance, AL, bears watching.

Asked to describe his own leadership style, the 57-year-old Mr. Gettelfinger rises at a news conference and jokingly offers a one-word answer before returning to his chair. “Abrasive,” he says.