The phone call came from Canadian Auto Workers president Basil (Buzz) Hargrove to UAW President Stephen P. Yokich about one week into the Canadian Auto Workers' three-week strike against GM.

The CAW strike fund was dwindling quickly. Leaders asked members for a special assessment to prop up the kitty in case the walkout lasted more than a month.

Don't worry, Mr. Yokich assured his Canadian counterpart, within certain legal parameters the UAW could provide assistance if it came to that.

"Of course you know, Buzz," the UAW president said. "There's one way you could have access to the entire $700 million (the value of the UAW's strike fund)."

"What's that Steve?" Mr. Hargrove asked.

"All you have to do is come home," Mr. Yokich replied, referring to the 1985 split between the two unions.

Whether or not the CAW and UAW reunite in the next three years, that mid-October conversation reflects Mr. Yokich's awareness that the UAW must build some sturdy bridges if it is to regain a foothold among the swelling ranks of non-union suppliers.

Reinvigorating the UAW's organizing resources is essential if it is to penetrate the independent suppliers where its membership ranks have nose-dived from 400,000 to 100,000 over the last 20 years. Without a broader presence among major suppliers, out-sourcing will continue to erode the UAW's ranks, especially within GM.

While the UAW has won about a dozen certification votes at supplier plants this year, most of the victories have come at small Tier 2 or 3 companies. A more visible and widely publicized effort at a Dana Corp. axle parts plant in Cape Girardeau, MO, failed in September by a sweeping 205-87 margin.

And despite Johnson Controls Inc.'s decision to recognize the UAW without a fight at two seat plants in Plymouth, NE, and Oberlin, OH, there's little evidence that the union is close to bringing other non-union JCI plants within its fold.

Asked how he'd reply to suppliers who say they can't live with the UAW when the Big Tbree, Japanese and German automakers are constantly expecting them to cut prices for their products by 2% to 5% each year, Mr. Yokich defiantly responds, "Nonsense.

"Sure, I can see that argument with very, very small suppliers, but can you hear GM crying to a supplier after this quarter they just had (GM earned $1. billion in the third quarter, $106 million from its ongoing automotive business in North America) and then saying, `I'm sorry. We've got to cut your price some more.'? That's like telling my guys they can't have a raise," he says.

Indeed, the way he sees it, suppliers have more in common with the UAW than they realize.

"So they tell company A, `if you won't give us that lower price, company B will do it for a dollar cheaper.' Then they'll find company C that will do it for a dollar cheaper than him. So to stay in business company A has got to come in under company C. It's a vicious cycle," Mr. Yokich says. "The Big Three could care less about suppliers staying in business."

Now that the Big Three talks are behind him, the 61-year-old labor leader will spend more time expediting the UAW's proposed "Big Steel" unification that could create one union with more than 2 million active members and 1.5 million retirees. The process likely won't reach fruition until 2001.

There are myriad administrative hurdles to clear. Will there be one constitution governing the new union? Who win lead it?

How will it affect the structure of bargaining within the auto, aerospace, steel and other industries?

Much of that is unresolved. Mr. Yokich says the larger union would be able to represent GM workers who now belong to the Machinists or the United Rubber Workers, which merged last year with the Steelworkers.

Would he like to lead America's largest industrial union in the 21st century? He'll be 65 by the time the process is completed. He talks about the lure of an extended retirement with long fishing trips and plenty of time for golf. But he's in better-than-average physical shape, and the opportunity to lead organized labor's renaissance would be almost impossible to resist.

He doesn't want to talk about that now. After all, showing such naked ambition could make him a lame duck within the UAW, something most Big Three labor relations officials would pray for privately. Steve Yokich would never give them that satisfaction.

Stephen P. Yokich has completed his first round of bargaining with the Big 3 auto-makers as president off the United Auto Workers. The linchpin of those agreements is a pledge by each company not to let its hourly employment fall below 95% of current levels.

Of course, there is plenty of wiggle room. New hires, of which there are many at Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., are not included in the base figure. General Motors Corp. may shed under-performing parts plants without jeopardizing its ability to meet the target. If a recession hits in the next three years, the 95% requirement will be waived. Mr. Yokich spoke recently with WAW Senior Editor Greg Gardner about a variety of issues.