Ron Gettelfinger was yesterday elected president of the powerful US United Auto Workers union for a four-year term.

Delegates at a UAW convention in Las Vegas elected Gettelfinger in a voice vote. He replaces Stephen Yokich who is retiring.

Gettelfinger, a one-time Ford employee and long-serving union official, was elected unopposed and had been all but assured of the presidency since last November when nominated by the union’s leadership.

Although over 40% of the 720,000 members are ‘blue-collar#; car industry factory employees at GM, Ford and Chrysler, declining membership in recent years has seen the UAW add over 100,000 graduate students, nurses, physicians, prosecutors and other government employees to its ranks.

Gettelfinger has identified recruiting more new members as one of his top priorities.

His first major task is to head the union in contract talks with the Big Three Detroit car makers next year.

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Gettelfinger#;s predecessor, Yokich, president for the last seven years, agreed generous contracts with GM, Ford and Chrysler that assured yearly wage increases, medical benefits and increased pensions and also banned plant closings, and other measures that made lay-offs difficult.

With GM and Chrysler losing money, and GM making less than it would like, the 2003 contract negotiation round is expected to be hard for both sides, with both the union and the car makers having to make concessions, particularly over plant closings and laid-off workers receiving a percentage of their pay.