Tributes have been flowing in the US over the weekend following the death, early on Friday, of former UAW president Stephen P. Yokich, at St. John’s Hospital in Detroit after suffering a stroke on Thursday. He was 66.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said: “Our union lost a powerful and eloquent leader today, and working people all over the world have lost a tireless advocate for economic and social justice.”

Both car and parts makers lined up to praise the fiery union leader with whom they often crossed swords but respected.

Ford chairman and CEO Bill Ford said: “I am deeply saddened by the passing of Stephen Yokich. To me, he was a good friend and advisor. To the world, he will be remembered as a great labour leader and an important figure in the history of the automotive industry.”

“Words can scarcely express our sadness at the unexpected passing of Stephen P. Yokich.  The men and women of the Chrysler Group lost a dear friend.  We knew him as a tremendous leader and a passionate advocate for working men and women everywhere.  He could be a tough adversary, but at the same time, a good friend – and to gracefully combine those two qualities is truly a hallmark of greatness,” said Chrysler president and CEO Dieter Zetsche.

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Added Delphi chairman, CEO and president J T Battenberg III: “Steve was a true advocate for UAW members and working people everywhere. He worked tirelessly to increase job security for them and to improve American competitiveness.  I admired his passion for his work and his tenacity in getting things done.  Our industry has lost one of its most vocal ‘fans’ and we will miss him.”

The golf-loving Yokich had been retired from the UAW for only about 10 weeks when he died. He had effectively spent a lifetime in the labour movement after being born on August 20, 1935, just six days before the UAW was founded.

His mother, Julia, a UAW activist in her own right, took Yokich on his first picket line when he was only 22 months old.

After serving in the US Air Force between 1952 and 1956,Yokich became a member of UAW Local (branch) 155 when he became a tool and diemaker apprentice at Heidrich Tool and Die Company in Oak Park, Michigan.

In 1969 he was appointed to the staff of UAW Region 1 by Walter Reuther, at the recommendation of then-Region 1 Director George Merelli.

In 1977 he was elected director of UAW Region 1 and became vice president of the UAW in 1980.

In 1983 he was re-elected vice president and became director of the union’s Ford department, a post he held until 1989.

In 1985, he led a successful drive to bring Michigan state employees into the UAW as part of the union’s move to diversify following shrinking automotive sector membership.

In 1989 Yokich was again re-elected as vice president and became director of the UAW’s GM department.

In 1995 he was elected president of the UAW and was re-elected to a second term in 1998. He retired at this year’s convention in Las Vegas.