Oh to be a fly on the wall as United Auto Workers (UAW ) union chiefs gather in Detroit this week to confirm a new leader.

The key issue will likely be rolling back, or at least putting a limit on extending, the many concessions made during the last few years, a period in which automakers closed plants, the credit crunch-induced recession bit and General Motors and Chrysler were forced through government-supervised bankruptcy.

Signs are that some of the rank and file think the UAW gave away too much hard-won territory – new hire wages halved, current and retired worker medical benefits cut, retiree pensions cut, and so it went.

While Ford negotiations veteran Bob King, 63, was endorsed as president by union heads last year, he now faces a rare, last-minute challenge from a dissident candidate, Gary Walkowicz, who works for Ford in Michigan, and was among the local leaders who organised to defeat a round of concessions that King had negotiated with that automaker last year.

King estimated recently the average UAW worker had given back pay and benefits worth between US$7,000 and $30,000 over the past decade.

A Reuters report today (Monday 14 June 2010) noted the vote was seen as a rebuke to UAW leadership after five years of near-constant concessions as well as a sign of the simmering tensions within the battered union. The Walkowicz attempt is almost certain to fail, though, because union delegates gathering in Detroit tend to be strongly aligned with head office views.

“You have a lot of anger. You have a lot of apprehension. You have a lot of uncertainty among union members,” labour expert and University of California professor Harley Shaiken told the news agency. “But how could you have anything else given what everyone has gone through and is going through?”

King is expected to be voted in as UAW president on Wednesday and to face immediate calls to win back some lost ground contract negotiations next year. Those will centre on Ford, the only US automaker to have avoided bankruptcy, which has already remarked tartly on not getting the same labour cost concessions from the UAW because it had the temerity to stay in business on its own account. Being on the wall during those 2011 talks would also be entertaining.

Outgoing UAW chief Ron Gettelfinger departs after eight years in the hot seat and over 45 years in the union and is the man the history books will record as moving retiree healthcare from the automakers to union-run trust funds and for presiding over said funds’ acquisition of 55% and 17.5% stakes in the ‘new’ Chrysler and GM respectively. Hence a greater than usual union interest in the expected forthcoming GM public offering when the money men and government decree the time is right.

Assuming King is elected, he takes over all that additional heavy responsibility – including dealing with loyal retirees don’t like having the pension/medicare goalposts moved after a deal was agreed and can be pretty vocal about it – as well as the first new round of UAW v US automakers since the bankruptcy restructurings.

Workers will want something back from the concession pot, automakers will want still more cost cuts to compete with the non-union, foreign owned plants down south and there’s always the more distant threat of capacious Chinese and Indian plant, using cheaper labour, offering to build cars for consumers that mostly don’t care where their wheels come from, as long as the price is right.

All this comes against a backdrop typified by, for example, a huge chunk of the city of Flint, Michigan, where a once thriving operation made parts and cars primarily for Buick. Today, having starred some years ago in the Michael Moore movie ‘Roger and Me’, it’s a mostly-cleared demolition site, though some acres are now being turned into a ‘business park’ or similar. The other day I was looking up a new property development and a Google Earth user placemark informed me it was yet another former automaking plant. A GM one in Ohio. And there’s lots more, and not just GM’s.

No wonder UAW membership peaked at near 1.5m in 1979, but had fallen to about 732,000 when Gettelfinger was nominated in late 2001 to lead the union. By 2009, membership had dropped below 400,000 workers and is no longer exclusively for motor industry people.

Head the UAW? It’ll take a brave man…