After Decades of Corrupt, Antidemocratic Rule, UAW Members Are Finally Electing Their Leaders
On Monday, ballots were sent to United Auto Workers members for the union’s first direct election of top officers. The vote gives rank-and-file members the chance to elect officers who will break with decades of corrupt, business-friendly union leadership.
Stakes are high in the United Auto Workers (UAW), with two polar-opposite visions of unionism up for leadership. On Monday, ballots were sent to UAW members for the union’s first direct election of top officers.
The rank-and-file vote comes about because members voted last fall to switch to that system, instead of having a far smaller number of convention delegates elect top leaders, as the UAW has done until now. The opportunity to let members decide was ordered by the US Justice Department’s monitor, installed in 2021 to oversee remedies to the union’s blatant corruption. Over the past five years, more than a dozen UAW officials have pleaded guilty and gone to jail for embezzlement and other crimes, including two presidents.
President Dennis Williams, for example, got the union to build him a $1.1-million lakeside “cabin” to ease his retirement. When FBI agents raided six locations in four states, they found “wads” of cash in President Gary Jones’s garage. Jones and his cronies had a particular fetish for cigars and golf clubs; Jones spent $13,000 of the members’ dues on cigars in just one day. Golf outings, lavish dinners, and villa rentals in Palm Springs were other treats the members paid for. One official pleaded guilty to taking $1.99 million in kickbacks from vendors for UAW swag, such as 50,000 “Team UAW-GM” jackets.
Successors of these disgraced leaders — members of the same “Administration Caucus” (AC) — still lead the UAW today and are running for reelection. Their opponents are the UAW Members United slate, backed by Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD). UAWD’s slogan is “No Corruption, No Concessions, No Tiers.” At the union’s July convention, UAWD members put forth proposals aimed at building solidarity and strengthening the union’s bargaining power, including a commitment to end multitier contracts, organize the electrical vehicle industry, and increase strike pay, almost all of which were defeated or undermined by the Administration Caucus.
UAW Is Crucial
With 400,000 working members and 600,000 retirees, the UAW is barely a quarter of the size it was in its 1970s heyday, but it remains strategically important. Historically, the UAW pioneered tactical innovations like the sit-down strike and novel bargaining demands like the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that improved conditions for millions of workers. But the UAW was also the union pioneer in making contract concessions and in jumping into labor-management cooperation programs that have undermined workers’ power. In the 1980s, especially with its Big Three contracts but also with others, the union set the example that so many unions disastrously followed and that workers are living with today.
Beyond the UAW’s symbolic role in setting trends for the broader labor movement, the union remains structurally important due to its position at the heart of US manufacturing. The auto industry alone accounts for over 3 percent of US gross domestic product. Total employment in auto was actually higher (1,333,916) in 2021 than in 1983 (996,452), but total union membership in the sector declined from 586,319 to 157,334. And as auto production has shifted somewhat from the Midwest to the South and companies have opened new nonunion factories, the question of how to organize the auto industry has become intertwined with the imperative to organize the South.
Any viable plan for building a powerful labor movement must involve a strong, revitalized UAW, organizing among the two million workers in its core industries: auto, parts, trucks, farm equipment, aircraft, and related manufacturing. The current UAW leadership is not up to the task.
Failure, Concessions, Corruption
As its membership began to crater in the 1980s because of speedup, automation, offshoring, and nonunion competition from Asian and German manufacturers opening plants in the United States, the Administration Caucus embraced lean production, contract concessions (locals in the same company are often encouraged to “bid” against each other for work), multitier contracts, and labor-management partnership.
The result for workers was devastating and has continued to this day. In 2007, top officials, believing a recession imminent, preemptively signed concessionary contracts with the Big Three automakers that created two-tier wage scales. These put new hires at literally half the wages of those already working, with inferior insurance and no pensions.
As bad contracts continued, “legacy” employees — supposedly the lucky ones — got no raises for ten years. Tiers multiplied both within the Big Three workforces and through a slew of low-paid subcontractors, as the companies contracted out the lighter jobs that used to be done by high-seniority UAW members. Lower-paid, in-house “temporaries” — yet another tier — did the same jobs as their higher-paid coworkers and were temporary only in the sense that they had no job security and no right to refuse overtime. The result has been the creation of a permanent underclass of autoworkers who will never reach the top tier and who feel like second-class citizens in their own union.
The combination of wage erosion in the Big Three contracts and declining union density in the auto industry overall has resulted in a decline in real hourly earnings for autoworkers of more than 20 percent since 1990 — even as private sector hourly earnings overall increased by more than 17 percent.
Not only have tiers hurt autoworkers’ pocketbooks, they have also undermined union solidarity. “Two-tier creates a division in our ranks,” noted longtime local UAW leader and reform activist Bill Parker. “Whatever happened to equal work for equal pay?” asked Sharron Chambers, a Tier-2 Chrysler worker, in a Bloomberg article. “Morale is very low.”
Likewise, labor-management partnership and “lean production” schemes have chipped away at bedrock union principles, encouraging workers to identify more with “their” company than with their fellow workers at other companies, as management leads them all on a race to the bottom in the name of “competitiveness.” The Big Three and the UAW poured hundreds of millions of dollars into funding “jointness” programs that created a breeding ground for corruption.
UAW leaders eventually turned to organizing graduate employees in order to shore up membership and for decades did not even try to organize nonunion auto plants. When the union did try, it failed miserably, as prospective members could see little “union advantage.” Anti-union forces used the lower-tier pay and top-tier wage freeze as talking points to defeat organizing drives, as happened at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Today, industrial workers are about 75 percent of the UAW membership, with most of the remainder being academic workers.
Cynicism among members has grown because of frequent use of the “vote till you get it right” tactic. Instead of returning to the bargaining table when members reject a concessionary contract, union leaders instead keep putting a similar or identical contract up for a vote, in an effort to grind workers down and convince them that this is the best they can get. The resulting contracts have weakened the union and eroded workers’ living and working standards. Given such consistent attempts to smash expectations, it is remarkable that industrial workers continue to resist, such as with the 2015 contract rejection at Chrysler and the recent defiance of the International at Volvo Trucks and John Deere.
What’s more, the UAW leadership’s reliance on slush-fund labor-management partnership programs devolved into outright corruption. The federal investigation unearthed a massive scandal of embezzlement, bribery, and influence-peddling involving millions of dollars of members’ dues money. So far it has landed thirteen UAW officials and two officials from Fiat-Chrysler (now Stellantis) in prison and led to a federal monitor being appointed to supervise the union’s affairs. As the investigation showed, not only did the corruption involve misuse of members’ dues money, but it directly weakened the union’s bargaining position, as UAW officials accepted payoffs in exchange for contract concessions.
At the heart of the scandal, and the embrace of concessions and labor-management partnership that led to it, lies one entity: the Administration Caucus (AC).
Control Reaches Deep
Formed in 1947 as part of President Walter Reuther’s effort to consolidate authority and stifle dissent in the union, the Administration Caucus has functioned ever since as the single party in the UAW’s one-party state. Virtually every member of the International Executive Board since 1947 has been part of the Administration Caucus, as are most local officials and staff. Membership is a requirement for advancing up the union’s hierarchy, from local official to international rep to assistant regional director to regional director. In auto, agricultural implements, and other established sectors of the union, the Administration Caucus reaches down to the lowest elected official on the shop floor, and loyalty is expected by all. Careerism and open displays of subservience are encouraged.
While Reuther built the UAW as a bastion of postwar progressivism, that veneer faded over time. In the 1960s, the Administration Caucus fought the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, in the 1970s it fought the United National Caucus and crushed wildcat strikes, and in the 1980s it fought the New Directions Movement, which advocated shop-floor militancy.
Today’s Administration Caucus leaders, the union’s top officers, seldom show much interest in or understanding of the basic idea of unionism: that the union’s job is to fight the bosses, not protect them. Their goals are to stay in office and enjoy the perks. Any challenge to the Administration Caucus’s leadership is perceived as a mortal threat that justifies any number of high-handed or outright repressive maneuvers to tamp down dissent.
Decades of this type of unionism — and worse, outright collaboration with the companies — have corroded any structures that could help rank-and-file members fight their immediate bosses on the shop floor, much less take on big corporations.
Simply put, the Administration Caucus is the single biggest obstacle to reforming the UAW and transforming it into a vehicle for building worker power. Any approach that does not seek to weaken or eliminate the AC’s control over the UAW is guaranteed to fall short.
Because of the first-ever direct vote for union leadership, UAW members now have the best opportunity in decades to weaken the Administration Caucus’s hold on power.
The driving force behind the campaign to allow “one member, one vote” last year was UAWD, which has members from across the union. The Administration Caucus, in contrast, urged members to vote against their own right to vote.
This year, UAWD recruited, endorsed, and nominated a partial slate (seven of fourteen slots) of candidates called UAW Members United, headed by Shawn Fain, a member of the UAW international staff with a record of dissent who has broken with the Administration Caucus. All of the Members United candidates are UAWD members, and UAWD plays the lead role in running the campaign.
UAWD was founded by autoworkers, and seven of its ten steering committee members are from auto, with one from John Deere. But higher education workers and legal services workers have also joined UAWD in droves. Delegates from the largely white-collar UAW Region 9A on the East Coast, in particular, played a key role at the July convention in fighting for UAWD proposals, including those that affect industrial workers. UAWD has forged strong bonds of solidarity between rank-and-file blue-collar and white-collar workers, a coalition that should be replicated across the labor movement.
Presumably seeking to avoid a floor debate — and in a big win for UAWD — just before the convention the International Executive Board preemptively acceded to UAWD’s convention proposal to raise strike pay from $275 to $400/week. (As of March, the union’s strike fund sat at $826 million.) Delegates then approved UAWD’s proposal to start strike pay on the first day of a strike, rather than the eighth, which is the current practice. When a delegate on strike (not a UAWD member) proposed that strike pay be raised even more, to $500, delegates voted yes — until the AC whipped them into line on the last day of the convention and brought strike pay back down to $400.
Thanks to UAWD, at this year’s convention, delegates had the opportunity to debate and vote on items not previously rubber-stamped by the Administration Caucus — including the major issue of tiered contracts. This was because UAWD repeatedly mustered well over the 15 percent of delegates required to get motions out of the Administration Caucus-controlled convention committees that have always set the agenda before now.
With a few exceptions, delegates voted down UAWD’s proposals. Crucially, this is not a sign that UAW members support Administration Caucus policies. Most delegates are local officials who have pledged allegiance to the AC with an eye toward moving up the union administration’s hierarchy. In 2018, for example, delegates rubber-stamped a motion to build the retirement “cottage” for then president Williams with no discussion. The convention results show the degree to which the Administration Caucus retains control of local officers — not of rank-and-file members. In fact, given the union’s long-standing bootlicking internal culture, it is doubly remarkable that UAWD got as many delegates to vote alongside it as it did.
To get a sense of the gap between delegate sentiment and member sentiment, a comparison to the Teamsters and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) is instructive. In 2016, the TDU-backed candidate for Teamsters president got a mere seven percent of the vote at the convention in the secret-ballot delegate vote, while incumbent James P. Hoffa got 93 percent. When the membership voted, TDU’s candidate went on to receive 49 percent. A TDU leader running on the Teamsters United slate in the Southern Region barely made the 5 percent required minimum of delegates, then won the membership vote with 57 percent.
Even as its corruption has been further exposed and as it has grown ever more out of touch with members’ concerns, the Administration Caucus has shown little interest in trying to reform itself. Indeed, it is startling how arrogant AC members remain. They have repeatedly refused to cooperate with the Justice Department’s monitor. After huge ethics violations and seeing their own caucus members convicted of a significant number of felonies, they actually changed for the worse how members of the union’s ethics committee are selected; instead of being chosen at random, they will now be appointed by regional directors. Administration Caucus leaders went so far as to use a morning prayer as an opportunity to attack critics, sending national chaplaincy chair Herb Taylor to tell “some of you [the delegates]” to “stop disrespecting this union.”
The Administration Caucus’s track record and recent actions suggest that it will not give up power willingly. Its candidates are now inventing reasons to visit locals, though it is against election rules and federal law to use union resources to campaign.
But members now can see a real alternative to the Administration Caucus. Progress for UAWD is UAW members’ best hope for changing the union into what it needs to be for all its members. Even if the Administration Caucus wins the election this fall, UAWD will turn to organizing and educational work inside the locals.
It will take time. TDU first got a candidate elected to the Teamster presidency fifteen years after it was founded, suffered a setback, and organized for sixteen more years before members again threw the dinosaurs out.
UAW members are organizing for a shorter trajectory.