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UAW says goodbye to Rouge leader Jerry Sullivan

December 29, 2009

UAW says goodbye to Rouge leader Jerry Sullivan

The Detroit News

Dexter — An estimated 600 mourners paid final tribute Tuesday to Jerome "Jerry" Sullivan, the longtime leader of one of the largest chapters of the United Auto Workers union: Local 600 in the shadow of the Ford Rouge complex in Dearborn.

Sullivan, who died Dec. 22 at age 61, had been president of Local 600 since 1990 — a volatile era in which he fought to save the plant from closing. In recent years, he urged his shrinking membership to accept unprecedented concessions in wages and benefits to help save Ford.

Mourners came from as far as Georgia and Tennessee to attend Sullivan’s funeral at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Dexter, just a few miles from his home. The Detroit native was hailed as a civil rights advocate, a proud Vietnam War veteran and unflappable believer in the UAW.

"He was a model of who we are and what we represent," said UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, who was one of Sullivan’s pallbearers. "Jerry lived an honorable life."

Sullivan was pivotal in preventing Ford from shuttering the Rouge complex in the early 1990s, when it was reduced to making one model, the Mustang.

UAW Vice President Bob King, the official nominee to succeed the retiring Gettelfinger next year, choked up when recalling his 37-year friendship with Sullivan. The two met as apprentices, training to become electricians.

"He was one of the people who encouraged me to run for an office," King said. King said the two men developed a close friendship that extended to political causes, including an effort during the 1980s to shut the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., considered a training ground for conservative military leaders across Latin America.

King, choking up, said it is "really sad" that Sullivan "won’t be with me at the next nomination" — to succeed Gettelfinger in June.

Sullivan, who held a master’s degree from Central Michigan University, was a member in 1999 of the national Ford bargaining unit that negotiated the labor contract for all Ford workers. He was a lifetime member of the NAACP and a 2001 honoree of the American Red Cross.

Sullivan’s commitment to unionism remained strong even as the UAW diminished dramatically in active membership, and as Detroit’s Big Three workers accepted unprecedented concessions in wages, benefits and health care.

The UAW had 1.5 million members at its peak in 1979. Its current membership is 431,000.

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