Top United Automobile Workers officials are expected to decide Nov. 12 on a nominee to head the 1.2 million-member union - its first president who will not come from among the ranks of leaders who served during the era of the late Walter P. Reuther.
Times are changing for the UAW and its industries. Auto manufacturing no longer is the growth industry it once was, and its relations with the UAW have changed. Management demands for lower labor costs have outweighed traditional UAW demands for ever-better contracts. As a result, bargaining has turned more conservative, leading to restiveness among UAW members.
The UAW executive board faces a painstaking selection of a candidate to succeed Douglas A. Fraser when he retires in 1983. Those chosen by the board for the presidency and other top offices will be presented to a UAW convention in Dallas next May and will be odds-on favorites to be elected.
With Mr. Fraser retiring, the first real election race since 1946 has been under way quietly in the UAW - quietly because of an agreement to avoid open campaigning that could hurt the union's contract negotiations this year.
Three candidates have emerged:
* UAW Secretary-Treasurer Raymond E. Majerus. He is considered a strong candidate and holds traditional views on bargaining. However, observers say he lacks the appearance and sophistication demanded of UAW presidents in an age of television and congressional and other hearings.
* Donald F. Ephlin, a UAW vice-president and director of the Ford Department. He is inclined toward less adversarial relations with employers. He gained recognition by negotiating innovative concessions this year in bargaining with Ford. Ford workers appear reasonably happy with their contract, a factor that could help Mr. Ephlin.
* Owen Bieber, also a vice-president and head of UAW's General Motors Department. He is considered a dark horse. His department is the largest in the UAW, which could give him a strong base. But the current dissatisfaction over the GM contract he negotiated could be a handicap.
Industry and labor are watching intently the board deliberations. The outcome could be a key factor in the course of industry-UAW relations for a decade or more, and thus a factor in the future help of the industry.
Blue-collar workers who have been losing jobs are beginning to blame the union for lack of diligence in protecting them. A new president will have to deal with their discontent and frustration and intensify UAW efforts to recruit new groups of workers to reinforce lagging ranks.