The United Auto Workers on Wednesday overwhelmingly elected Bob King as its president in an endorsement of the sweeping concessions the union made to U.S. automakers in recent years in a bid to ensure their survival.

A veteran negotiator with Ford Motor Co, King's first task as president will be to lead the union into contract talks in 2011, expected to center on Ford and on calls for workers to be rewarded as U.S. automakers return to profitability.

King, 63, succeeds Ron Gettelfinger, who served eight years as UAW president and oversaw the union during a period of growing difficulty for the industry that culminated with the bankruptcies of General Motors Co and Chrysler.

The UAW's top leadership had endorsed King as the successor to Gettelfinger late last year.

Like Gettelfinger, King has been praised by Detroit executives for his pragmatism in contract talks and for driving the UAW to become a partner with management on key decisions like where new vehicles will be built.

He assumes the top position of a union whose membership peaked at nearly 1.5 million in 1979, but had fallen to below 400,000 workers by 2009.

King faced a last-minute challenge from Gary Walkowicz, a Ford worker who was part of a committee that led a successful fight to reject additional contract changes that King and Gettelfinger had negotiated for Ford last year.

Bob has a vision for the future and to build our organization through numbers and strength, said Danny Huddleston, president of UAW Local 1111, which represents workers at a parts plant in Indiana.

King was declared the victor after he reached a majority of votes in a roll call. Only a handful of delegates supported Walkowicz.

The final vote was 2,115 for King and 74.5 for Walkowicz on a weighted basis. The votes of the nearly 1,100 delegates were weighed according to the size of the membership in the union locals that they represent.

He will try to get us a piece of profit that we deserve, Huddleston said of King. They returned to profitability because of what we did, because we made concessions to help everybody survive.

Andy Pella, who works in Lockport, New York, cast his votes for Walkowicz and wore a black T-shirt with NO CONCESSIONS printed in red letters on the back. He said his vote was in opposition to concessions with the auto companies rather than the leadership of the union.

As the votes show that Bob King will be the incoming president. I support him fully and I'm hoping he realizes that we need to regain some of what we lost, Pella said.

A University of Michigan graduate, King joined the UAW in 1970 after serving in the U.S. Army. He trained at Ford as an electrician while earning a law degree at the University of Detroit.

Gettelfinger steered the UAW through a series of historic givebacks on wages, pensions and starting wages for new workers at the automakers of about $14 per hour -- about half of the $28 base rate for veteran autoworkers.

He also negotiated the creation of healthcare trusts that removed obligations estimated at almost $90 billion from the books of the three Detroit automakers.

The voluntary employee beneficiary associations, or VEBAs, were given ownership stakes in the automakers under the government-led reorganizations of Chrysler, which is under the management control of Italy's Fiat SpA and GM.

(Reporting by David Bailey and Soyoung Kim; Editing by Richard Chang and Maureen Bavdek)