DETROIT – The public is embracing labor unions as a hedge against tough economic times, United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger says.

“The pendulum is swinging,” Gettelfinger, 65, tells Ward’s as he enters the final months of his tenure as leader of the 513,000-member union.

His remarks come in the wake of criticism from industry observers who claim the UAW has crippled Detroit auto makers, and from dissidents within the union who allege workers have been unfairly compromised by concessionary agreements.

Gettelfinger ignores the outside criticism, blaming Detroit’s woes on the global recession that has gripped the auto industry in nearly every region. Of his detractors within the UAW, he is more direct.

“A lot of people say to me, ‘Well, what would Walter Reuther do today?’” he says, referring to the UAW’s patriarch. “I’ve even had some say, ‘Walter Reuther would turn over in his grave.’ Well, Walter Reuther was a pragmatist.”

A survey of workers between the ages of 18 and 35 released earlier this year indicates public attitudes are shifting in favor of unions. Commissioned by the AFL-CIO, it indicates some 55% of people believe collective action is the best way to resolve workplace issues, while 50% said they believe workers are better off with unions than without.

A 2007 AFL-CIO survey asked similar questions of a broader range of workers and found 46% favored collective action and 35% favored unions.

The UAW hopes such attitudes prevail in its organizing drives. The union’s membership has dropped precipitously in recent decades, but so have employment levels in the plants it represents.

Gettelfinger says positive news is on the horizon for workers at one of the nation’s so-called transplants. “Not too far down the road” those workers expect to have enough support to have the UAW declared their bargaining agent.

Meanwhile, the UAW actively is working to support the International Metal Workers Federation in its attempts to secure workplace representation for assemblers in emerging markets.

“The problem is, from the standpoint of organized labor, the companies are moving very quickly into undeveloped countries,” Gettelfinger says. “We’re going to build up, worldwide, the organizing.”

Workers have one of two choices, he says: “You’re an employee at will or you form a union and you’re protected under a contract. That’s really what it boils down to.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Gettelfinger says there is no shortage of talented leaders who could fill his shoes.

“There’s always people that want the job,” he says. “May the 9th of 1970, Walter Reuther was killed in a plane crash. And he was replaced. There’s always somebody who’s willing to step up to the plate.”

Gettelfinger gives no thought to his legacy, one that likely will be linked to thousands of job losses as Detroit auto makers consolidated their operations to cope with an increasingly competitive market.

“We’ve had seven-and-a-half pretty rough years,” he says. “I think that’s a pretty fair assessment of it. But we survived it and did the very best of our ability.”

Gettelfinger says the negative stigma that long has surrounded union-made vehicles is dissipating, adding few consumers seem to know what models are produced by UAW workers and which ones are not.

“I’ve had people tell me that the Toyota Corolla is the best car in the world,” he says. “Then you show ’em the sticker that says the car was made in California by UAW members and it blows them away.”

However, that plant – New United Motor Mfg. Inc. – is being closed. Toyota Motor Corp. is pulling out because the site also produced the Pontiac Vibe and joint-venture partner General Motors Co. is phasing out its Pontiac brand.

Gettelfinger says he will remain a staunch defender of workers’ dignity.

“There’s a lot of jobs who just go on, and in three days you can learn them,” he says. “There are other jobs that are going to take you a lot longer. But it’s the endurance. It’s being there at six o’clock in the morning. It’s working on 57-58 jobs an hour.

“You work, maybe, 58 minutes out of the hour. So if you think about it, you’ve got two minutes in the course of an hour when you’re not technically a slave to the assembly line. And anybody that puts them down, I will fight with ’em any day.”

But Gettelfinger still has fond memories of his first job at a Ford Motor Co. plant in Kentucky in 1964.

“I can remember being a worker on the line, putting a part on an automobile and thinking, ‘Somebody’s going to be sittin’ out in their driveway waxing this baby one day.’ I always just took a lot of pleasure in that.

“I’ve got the experience of a lifetime,” he says.

Gettelfinger leaves office in June.

emayne@wardsauto.com