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Published: Sunday, 6/15/2003

First year at top of Ohio's UAW filled with miles, muscle-flexing

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Lloyd Mahaffey supervises statewide union activities from headquarters in Arrowhead Park in Maumee. Lloyd Mahaffey supervises statewide union activities from headquarters in Arrowhead Park in Maumee.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

When Ohio UAW chief Lloyd Mahaffey arrived for a tour of a union-represented factory in the southern Ohio hamlet of McArthur, he wasn't exactly met by a 10-piece band.

“There was nobody there,” he recalled with a chuckle, explaining that he later learned that workers had been sent home after a power outage darkened the entire town.

It was a minor detour on a 50,000-mile odyssey that began a year ago when supervision of United Auto Workers affairs throughout Ohio was thrust upon the longtime suburban Toledo union leader.

For the low-key 59-year-old, it has been a year of travel, tours of unfamiliar UAW-represented facilities like the Cuyahoga County jail, and union muscle-flexing.

Mr. Mahaffey, a native of Marion, Ohio, earns high marks from staff members like Carylon Vinson, who transferred from UAW offices in Cleveland to state headquarters in Arrowhead Park in the Toledo suburb of Maumee to oversee training of union representatives across Ohio.

“Lloyd Mahaffey goes way beyond what he has to,” said the onetime auto assembly line worker in Lorain, Ohio. “He knows when to be tough. But as long as you're taking care of business, he's happy.”

At the same time, some in the Lucas County Democratic party - whose candidates are a major beneficiary of the largesse of the region's most powerful union - have begun to quietly grumble that the UAW leader is thin-skinned.

Mr. Mahaffey in recent days has signaled that he will promote a Democratic primary challenge to Harry Barlos, president of the Lucas County Commission, because the commissioner hasn't adequately communicated with him.

There is speculation that the threat was motivated in part, at least, by a contract dispute last February when Mr. Barlos and other county commissioners initially vetoed negotiated pay increases for UAW members in the Lucas County sheriff's office.

For his part, Mr. Mahaffey doesn't apologize. “I believe in open primaries,” he said. “It helps to make races issue-driven.” Plus, he added, the challenge could come from Toledo City Councilman Pete Gerken, a UAW executive the union would be obligated to support.

With the expanded role Mr. Mahaffey assumed at a union convention in June, 2002, he became the most important UAW leader in Ohio.

Formerly director of the union's western Ohio region, he now heads a statewide grouping that is two-thirds larger, with 88,000 members employed at 350 work sites. The region has 24 plants operated by the Big Three car makers or their now-independent auto-parts subsidiaries. Although a small percentage of union shops, those factories account for nearly half of UAW members in Ohio.

Union members in the state work in fields ranging from brewing and law enforcement to child welfare and health care.

Among the accolades since being elected by convention delegates to the directorship of the newly beefed-up UAW Region 2-B, Mr. Mahaffey was tagged this year for on Gov. Bob Taft's labor advisory council.

He also is chairman of the UAW's state political action committee, which bestows precious money on political candidates.

Since taking on his new roles, Mr. Mahaffey has traveled widely, visiting UAW plants and offices throughout Ohio. His goal is to meet with union members at every work site. He put 50,000 miles on his car the past year.

He seldom stays in hotels, preferring to return to Toledo to get an early start the next morning on his drive to work or to the next city on his itinerary.

He and his wife, Sharon, haven't had time for a vacation. But he isn't complaining.

“It's been challenging,” he said. “I can't say it's been horrible or overly stressful.”

The secret to not becoming overwhelmed, he said, has been effectively managing time and setting priorities.

“It's like eating an elephant,” Mr. Mahaffey explained. “You take one bite at a time until you've got it done.”

He oversees a staff of 45 international representatives scattered around the state. Recently, he has had to decide whether to keep existing offices. Some representatives at the union's Cleveland area office, in Independence, will be moved to a new office near Youngstown. He has consolidated Cincinnati and Dayton offices into a single site midway between the two cities.

Other international representatives work from local union halls in Defiance, Lima, and Columbus.

Mr. Mahaffey said he has encountered no hostility in the eastern part of the state despite the unusual circumstances under which the two regions were merged.

Events were set in motion when Cleveland Regional Director Warren Davis ignored a promise not to run for re-election to his union office as well as a UAW custom that officers not seek another term after reaching age 65. Mr. Davis was 67.

He unexpectedly re-entered the UAW race and won at a convention in Las Vegas. Union leaders then persuaded convention delegates to merge the Cleveland region with Toledo, essentially eliminating Mr. Davis' job.

“It has worked out well with everyone's help,” Mr. Mahaffey said.

Ben Strickland, a UAW member recently elected shop chairman by co-workers at General Motors Corp.'s Lordstown assembly plant in the former Cleveland region, said he has observed no ongoing friction over the merger.

There is no grumbling about the new regional leadership. “As far as I can see, everything is going fine,” he said.

Added Bruce Baumhower, president of Toledo's Local 12, the state's largest UAW local, “That was a tough, tough situation.

Mr. Baumhower, whose membership ranges from Toledo Jeep workers to nurses at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, praised Mr. Mahaffey's work ethic.

“He sets the example for hard work in our region and everybody else follows.”

One of the UAW director's current projects is to increase UAW clout on Election Day.

Mr. Mahaffey said about 65 percent of the union's 114,000 workers and retirees - compared with 40 percent five years ago - are registered to vote. Many registered with encouragement from the UAW.

The union is in negotiations with a Toledo TV station to broadcast a half-hour UAW-produced talk show discussing prescription drug coverage, civil rights, and other issues in which the union has an interest. Mr. Mahaffey hopes to put the show on the air in Toledo by October and plans to try to persuade other stations around Ohio to pick it up.

“We have to get members to focus on issues,” the union director said. “As part of that, we have to re-think how we're going to use our resources. It's not good enough to just throw money at candidates.”

Although usually mild-mannered, Mr. Mahaffey has a reputation for tenacity.

Angered by management conduct in an unsuccessful UAW organizing drive at Toledo Hospital, Mr. Mahaffey threatened to steer union business away from the hospital and affiliated ProMedica Health System and its health maintenance organization, Paramount Health Care.

Mr. Mahaffey now says his position was misunderstood. His biggest aim, he said, was to make sure that exclusivity clauses in Paramount contracts don't preclude UAW members from using the central-city St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, where the union represents 2,700 workers. “It's just as important to us that people have an option to use St. Vincent as it is that they buy American cars,” he said.

He hasn't given up a goal of getting workers at Toledo's Jeep assembly plant included in a national contract covering nearly all other DaimlerChrysler AG facilities in the United States. The Toledo factory's attempts to join the agreement were rebuffed last year by union representatives from DaimlerChrysler plants elsewhere, and a top UAW official in Detroit also declined to permit the addition.

“They should be in it,” Mr. Mahaffey said of the Jeep workers. “It's a matter of timing. I talk about it at every opportunity.”

His biggest challenge will come this summer with the opening of contract talks at DaimlerChrysler, GM, and Ford Motor Co. The negotiations are complicated by rising costs of providing health benefits and pensions as well as competition from foreign car makers.

“There is no doubt in my mind that it's going to be a tough round of negotiations,” he said.

Mr. Mahaffey is up to the challenge. Under the guidance of his wife, who is a nurse, he swore off junk food at the start of the year. Following a diet that emphasizes healthful foods like oatmeal and fruit, he has lost 18 pounds.

He enjoys his work, he said, and has no plans for early retirement. “If I'm fortunate to feel as good as I feel now, I wouldn't want to retire until I'm 65.”



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