He has been in the job just six months, but United Auto Workers President Stephen P. Yokich already has put his imprint on the union.

He's beefing up the UAW's moribund organizing efforts, with nonunion foreign-based U.S. transplants still in his sights, and he's a key player in what could become the biggest union merger in U.S. history.

His biggest test, however, comes in 1996 when he'll lead negotiations with the Big Three starting next summer on new three-year contracts even as he's under the gun to rally his troops for the November general election -- no skip through the dew, given the Republican Congressional sweep of 1994 that dealt a huge blow to pro-union liberal Democrats.

In an exclusive interview with Ward's Auto World, Mr. Yokich declines to provide hints on his 1996 negotiating strategy. But clearly the Big Three's booming recovery since the last round of talks in 1992 hasn't escaped his attention.

Emphasizing that UAW members have been major contibutors to the industry's financial success, Mr. Yokich sounds like it's time to share a little bit of the wealth. "I didn't say that, but you know what I'm thinking ... you can read my thoughts."

The future of organized labor may hinge on how much Mr. Yokich, now 59, accomplishes during his six-year reign at the UAW. Some believe the labor movement is entering the twilight of its viability. Others see the dawn of a new day.

A strong believer in defending workers' rights, Mr. Yokich inherited a strike at Carterpillar Inc. that began more than a year ago and continues with no resolution in sight. Rather than cave in, the Peoria, IL-based manufacturer of heavy construction equipment continues production and is racking up record profits.

Although not directly affected, the UAW has sided with six unions in Detroit who struck the The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press last July. Despite violence and harassment, the papers have continued publishing without the unions, in effect breaking the strike.

As depressing as these events are for labor, Mr. Yokich thinks a resurgence lies ahead for unions.

Mr. Yokich's elevation to the top UAW post signals what's coming. Heir apparent for 12 years, one of the first things he did was call a "week-long" UAW board meeting "to prepare ourselves to move into the 21st Century." By coincidence, the United Rubber Workers voted to merge with the United Steelworkers of America just as Mr. Yokich was taking over the UAW's reins.

That was a cap gun compared to the thunderous shot that organized labor squeezed off a month later. Facing Kleig lights in Washington, DC, Mr. Yokich, George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers, and George Kourpias, president of the International Association of Machinists, announced they would merge their unions.

"It will be a union of more than 2 million members and 1.5 million retirees," he says. "That gives you tremendous power as far as legislation and things like that throughout this country, if used properly."

Mr. Yokich adds: "It's a step forward to a confederation with our brothers in Canada. There are some 200,000 (Canadian) autoworkers. We've talked to the CAW (Canadian Auto Workers union) about this, and obviously there's a feeling for a strong North American metal workers federation." (The Canadians seceded from the UAW in the mid-'80s under the fiery leadership of former CAW President Bob White).

When he took over, observers wondered whether Mr. Yokich would be able put aside his bare-knuckled reputation as a tough negotiator and assume the mantle of long-term strategic planner and labor statesman. Apparently, that's exactly what Mr. Yokich is trying to do.

Thus his attention switches to weightier national and international matters likely to have an impact on his 800,000 active members.

"The project today is to lift the Mexican workers to higher wages and benefits so that they're not a threat to their North American brothers and sisters," he allows, clearly referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), whose passage was opposed by the UAW.

Although Mr Yokich is beginning to sound more and more like a national labor policy maker, he hasn't forgotten his core constituency. For the first time since Chrysler Corp. faced bankruptcy in 1979, the UAW will go into negotiations with all of the Big Three financially healthy. Philosophically, Mr. Yokich says, "the Big Three, with the chairmen and the management they have, relations with the UAW have been very good."

There have been local strikes, but the bottom line is both management's and labor's end goal is to build quality products. "That's job security for us," says Mr. Yokich, "because they (now) have the money to continue on with new products."

Then he adds: "We've been part of this, we've made the hard choices."