DETROIT – In a rousing farewell speech at the United Auto Workers union’s 35th Constitutional Convention here, President Ron Gettelfinger outlines key moments during his 8-year tenure and stresses there is more work ahead.

Gettelfinger, who is expected to be succeeded by Vice President Bob King in an election later this week, praises union members for accepting difficult concessions last year as part of bankruptcies at the former General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC.

“We found ourselves in a fight for survival; there was stress beyond imagination,” he says. “Our willingness to stand up and (our) solidarity charted a new course. Leaner, yes. But stronger and more determined.”

Suppliers, too, were affected, Gettelfinger says.

“In addition to the Chrysler and General Motors controlled bankruptcies, we witnessed, according to the Original Equipment Suppliers Assn., the bankruptcy of 55 union and non-union suppliers and the liquidation of 200 others, erasing thousands of jobs,” he says.

The givebacks to GM and Chrysler, which included sacrificing wage hikes and holiday bonuses and exchanged overtime for straight-time pay, were a bitter pill to swallow, Gettelfinger admits.

If there’s any knock against the outgoing president, who remains popular among UAW rank and file, it’s that concessions cut too deeply. Many members are clamoring for the return of some or most of those lost benefits now that the Detroit Three are on more solid financial footing.

Gettelfinger acknowledges the hardships the concessions caused.

“I accept responsibility for any shortcomings during the last eight years,” he says. “We had to do hard assessments and analysis and abandon what wasn’t working.”

While admitting difficulties during his presidency, Gettelfinger also highlights some of the achievements, including winning back pay and reinstatement from American Axle Mfg. & Holdings Inc. for 125 laid-off workers.

“We also saw UAW members at Daimler North America (Freightliner) in North Carolina launch and win a multifaceted campaign when their work was shifted to Mexico,” he says. “They contacted dealers and customers, reached out to public officials and pursued a grievance under their contract.”

Ultimately, an arbitrator ordered the work brought home and awarded back pay to more than 900 union members, Gettelfinger says. “This initiative was instrumental in gaining job security for Freightliner workers in the most recently completed negotiations this year.”

Gettelfinger warns members to stand watch for anti-union forces that sought to destroy the UAW, when the economic crisis upended GM and Chrysler.

“We must never forget that there were several right-wing conservatives in Washington who thought our industry should just fade away,” he says. “Most of these conservatives chose to represent the overseas foreign-nameplate operations and turned their backs on America’s domestic auto industry and her workers.

“Let’s be clear,” Gettelfinger says. “The contempt for the UAW was so deep that some of them were willing to let the industry collapse in the hopes they could destroy us.”

In addition to “right-wing” conservatives, the union president says there are “employers” that wish to see the demise of the UAW, citing “greed” as their driving force.

In a thinly veiled reference to transplant auto makers such as Toyota Motor Corp. and American Honda Motor Co. Inc., Gettelfinger says the “employers” are keeping their workers from organizing.

“These pro-employer, anti-worker, anti-union forces continually attack unions and workers who want to form a union,” he says. “Those they represent belong to organizations that help them to gain clout in the employer community, but they prefer to have the ability to trample on workers’ rights individual by individual.”

Gettelfinger hails President Obama’s decision to provide government financing to GM and Chrysler during their Chapter 11 reorganizations.

Both auto makers have come back strong, he says, a clear indication Obama made the right call.

“Without hesitation President Barack Obama addressed the auto crisis and took the necessary actions to prevent the collapse of the industry,” he says. “Just over a year later, the domestic auto industry is profitable and is making in-roads in market share.”

The resurgence of the domestic auto industry, combined with missteps such as the massive Toyota recall campaign, have helped sway American consumers to take another look at the Detroit Three, Gettelfinger says.

“We are all pleased that a recent poll shows Americans prefer domestics 38% to 33% over foreign brands,” he says.

Although the recession led to the closing of plants, bankruptcies and the loss of thousands of UAW jobs, the union remains on solid financial footing, Gettelfinger says.

“In eight years, even during the toughest economic times, we did not spend one penny of principle or interest out of the Emergency Operating Fund. Today it stands at over $102 million.”

As for his retirement plans, Gettelfinger tells Ward’s he’s been too busy to think about that, stating his purpose now is to “reenergize the UAW.”

bpope@wardsauto.com