Stephen P. Yokich is as ornery as a bear jolted out of hibernation in the middle of winter. Obviously a contract year is near.

On a brilliant, crisp fall morning, one week after he has given up coffee, the United Auto Workers president begins an interview by declaring he doesn't want to be photographed. He appears healthy, perhaps a few pounds lighter. The prostate cancer he battled more than a year ago remains in remission.

After presenting a cogent reason why he should reconsider the photo request, one gains new appreciation for what it is like sitting across the bargaining table from him.

My bottom line: The photo is not a strikeable issue. I'll settle for picking his brain for an hour.

He's alternately churlish and charming. Some of the answers are terse and contentious. Others reveal more than you might expect.

On negotiating with a merged DaimlerChrysler:

"I'm going to sit there and negotiate with whoever they want to sit at that table," he says. "I'll get their attention one way or another."

On the inevitable push by automakers to buy larger, more complex modules from independent suppliers who pay half or less the prevailing UAW wage at GM, Ford and Chrysler plants:

"I think the whole industry would like to have nothing but assembly plants. They'd like it if we'd all just die and go away."

The UAW has not been involved in any of the 28 integration teams formed to ease the DaimlerChrysler transition. But it has been laying groundwork with the giant German union IG (pronounced EE-gay) Metall, which has agreed to give the UAW one seat on the DaimlerChrysler supervisory board. Under German law, labor and banking interests are entitled to representation on those boards. So far, the UAW leadership has not chosen that person.

Mr. Yokich remains optimistic about the merger's impact on the union.

"Some people worry that it's a German company, but we deal with German companies every day," he says.

Mr. Yokich and Jack Laskowski, vice president of the union's Chrysler department, have talked with IG Metall leaders about strategies for organizing workers at Mercedes-Benz's Vance, AL, plant. No organizing drive has begun there yet.

The UAW faces a new management team at Ford Motor Co. with Chairman Bill Ford Jr. and President and CEO Jacques A. Nasser. But the promotion of Mr. Yokich's friend Peter J. Pestillo to vice chairman and chief of staff provides continuity. As in 1996, Ford will try to lure the UAW to bargain with it first. Mr. Yokich tried to break the tradition of choosing a target several weeks before the mid-September deadline by continuing to talk with both Ford and Chrysler. But Ford's willingness to pledge that hourly U.S. employment would not fall below 95% of its September 1996 level enabled it to craft an agreement that directly addressed its needs.

"We've had a good long relationship with the UAW," says Mr. Nasser. "That doesn't mean sugar-coating things. That means putting down on paper the strongest business case we can do together."

Mr. Nasser takes full credit (or, in the view of suppliers, blame) for the February 1997 decision not to accept seats for the Ford Expedition that were made by replacement workers during a strike at two Johnson Control Inc. plants. Ford temporarily sourced seats from Lear Corp. until the JCI strike was settled.

The $2 billion question will be whether the UAW and General Motors Corp. can avoid another train wreck like last summer's 54-day war of wills in Flint. The potential flashpoints: the spinoff of Delphi Automotive Systems, GM's excess capacity for small cars and the ongoing push toward modular parts production by independent non-union suppliers.

Despite more frequent informal conversations between GM industrial relations managers and UAW GM Dept. Vice President Richard Shoemaker, Mr. Yokich hasn't put the bitterness of last summer behind him.

"It's not important in my life if somebody called Dick twice more than they called him last month," he says. "We've got to build trust. There's no trust between the parties. They make major decisions without talking to us. Every time they tell you guys this is their No.1 priority I read about it, but I don't see any difference."

Gary Cowger, GM's new vice president for personnel, faces a herculean challenge.

In short, it's too early to say what, if any, lessons were learned from the Flint showdown.

"The strike was one of the stupidest things management could have done," says Harry C. Katz, professor of collective bargaining at Cornell University. "But the UAW has got to organize non-union parts plants more effectively. There are other unions, like the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers, that are much more innovative in their organizing tactics."