The machine will churn no more. Nearly eighty years of top-down one-party rule in the United Auto Workers (UAW) are coming to an end. Reformer Shawn Fain is set to be the winner in the runoff for the UAW presidency.
As of Thursday night, Fain had a 505-vote edge, 69,386 to 68,881, over incumbent Ray Curry of the Administration Caucus. Curry was appointed by the union’s executive board in 2021. There are around six hundred unresolved challenged ballots.
“By now, the writing is on the wall: change is coming to the UAW,” said Fain. “You, the members, have already made history in this election, and we’re just getting started. It’s a new day in the UAW.”
It’s a stunning upset in one of the nation’s most storied unions. Once Fain’s victory is conclusive — after remaining challenged ballots are counted — he will join Secretary-Treasurer Margaret Mock, who ran on the Members United slate and won outright in the first round, and a majority of the International Executive Board, giving reformers control of the direction of the union. The UAW Members United slate won every race it challenged — a clear rebuke to the old guard.
“Thousands of UAW members put countless hours into this historic campaign to take back our union,” said Fain. “I thank those members — no matter who they voted for — for taking an active role in our union.
“But thousands of members have lost faith, after years of corruption at the top and concessions at the bottom,” he continued. “Our job now is to put the members back in the driver’s seat, regain the trust of the rank and file, and put the companies on notice. We are ending give-back unionism and company control in the UAW.”
Fain is an electrician from Kokomo, Indiana, and on the staff of the international union.
“Shawn Fain ran a campaign on the promise of true reform in the UAW,” said Justin Mayhugh, a General Motors worker at the Fairfax Assembly plant in Kansas City and a member of Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), the caucus formed in 2019 to fight for members’ right to vote on top officers. UAWD backed Fain’s UAW Members United slate.
“That message has resonated with the members of our union who are ready for change,” Mayhugh said. “He ran a campaign based on the needs of the rank and file, and because of that, he was able to overcome the many entrenched advantages Curry enjoyed during this election process. It’s a truly historic moment for our union.”
And not a moment too soon. The Big Three auto contracts with Ford, GM, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) expire in six months, and the industry is undergoing major changes with the rise of electric vehicles. The Big Three now have less than half of the domestic auto market, and more than half of all US auto workers are nonunion.
Agreements with the Canadian union Unifor covering some twenty thousand auto workers at the Big Three also expire in September.
“We are putting the Big 3 on notice: they should get ready to negotiate with a UAW where the membership is back in charge of this union,” Fain told Labor Notes in December after the first round of the election, where reformers won five seats outright.
Long Time Coming
The last time a reformer had won a seat on the UAW board was in 1986, when Jerry Tucker of the New Directions Movement became a regional director. New Directions coalesced a group of reformers into a rank-and-file resistance movement in the 1980s and early 1990s.
And going back even further, the last contested election for the presidency, except for Tucker’s run for president in 1991 and other symbolic runs, was in 1946 between R. J. Thomas and Walter Reuther, heading opposing caucuses.
Reuther won and purged the Communists from the UAW staff and defeated or co-opted other opponents. He consolidated his power in a 1947 sweep that accomplished what historian Nelson Lichtenstein describes as “nothing less than the elimination of his rivals from all posts in the UAW hierarchy.”
“The UAW in the ’40s was known for this intense internal democracy,” said Lichtenstein, author of Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit. “And hopefully, with the victory of Shawn Fain, he’s not going to create a new machine. There are going to be contested elections from now on, and that’s a good, healthy thing. It brings in the rank and file and energizes people.”
The UAW has four hundred thousand members and a strike fund of a billion dollars. The new leaders campaigned on a militant approach to organizing, internal democracy, and solidarity against tiers, similar to the leadership shakeup in the Teamsters in 2021. The Members United slogan was “No Corruption, No Concessions, No Tiers.”
They face steep challenges. The union has seen a membership decline in its core manufacturing sector. The GM division, for example, is today about 11 percent of its 450,000-member heyday in the 1970s. Attempts to organize auto factories in the South have failed, including at a Nissan plant in Mississippi in 2017 and a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee in 2019. Other organizing opportunities are on the horizon. Ford will build four new factories to produce electric vehicle batteries and electric F-Series pickup trucks in Kentucky and Tennessee by 2025, employing eleven thousand workers.
To shore up numbers, the union has brought in university workers in recent years, now accounting for 20 percent of members. University of California graduate employees, coming off a recent strike, went overwhelmingly for Fain, defying local leaders who supported Curry. Graduate worker turnout was very low, however, and they were a modest part of Fain’s vote total, 2.5 percent.
Good Contracts Organize
The new leaders will need to fight for stronger contracts at existing shops while launching new organizing campaigns. Scott Houldieson, an electrician at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant and a founding member of UAWD, says these goals are mutually dependent.
“When you’re negotiating concessionary contracts, it doesn’t help your organizing strategy at all,” said Houldieson. “In fact, it gives talking points to the anti-union forces.
“And while we have to do both at the same time — bargain strong contracts and do new organizing — we will do better at organizing the unorganized if we can first organize to fight back,” he continued. “The rank and file is fed up with our union officers taking the company line, each and every time we have an issue, whether it be contract negotiations or grievance settlements.”
The Big Three are hauling in record profits, but they continue to lose market share to nonunion automakers. Electric vehicle battery plants and federal investments that are part of a green industrial policy provide an opportunity to organize workers in new manufacturing jobs.
Concessions Key Beef
UAWD’s campaign for one-member-one-vote was seen as a long shot when it began in 2019. Even the union’s internal review board once described the union as functioning like a “one-party state.” But then an investigation by the Justice Department laid bare long-standing corruption in the union, including embezzlement, kickbacks, and collusion with employers. Thirteen union officials went to jail, including two former presidents.
The consent decree that resulted from the corruption scandals made it possible for members to decide whether they wanted to directly elect their officers, as opposed to a convention delegate system. In December 2021, UAW members voted 63.6 percent in support of electing top officers through one-member-one-vote.
But the financial chicanery at the top was not enough to galvanize the rank and file, says retired Local 1700 president Bill Parker.
“Corruption was a minor issue,” said Parker. “The real problem was that the union no longer fought the company, going back to the early ’80s when it began granting concessions, and then it all went downhill from there.” The union began giving away concessions at Chrysler beginning in 1979. Ford and GM followed suit with demands for ever-deeper givebacks.
“People want the union to challenge management,” said Parker, “not lay down in front of them. So they want the collective power of the union, not just to reform the union, but to aggressively change the union into a fighting institution.”
Retirees Vote for Change
But the discontent has had a slow buildup. Take retirees from locals whose factories closed. Parker says they felt abandoned by the union and were favorable to reformers in both rounds of the election. (We can’t tell how most retirees voted because their votes are mixed with those of active members. But we can see how retirees from closed locals voted.)
“Forty or fifty years ago, when I started out, retirees were solidly in the camp of the Administration Caucus,” he said, “because at the time, the Administration was doing things like negotiating improvements in the pension and bonuses.
“Then in 2007, during contract negotiations, the union agreed to two tiers.” Now “the majority of Chrysler workers are second-tier employees with no pension, no retiree health care, and they’re treated poorly in the plant.”
At Chrysler Local 1268, where the company has indefinitely “idled” the Belvidere Assembly Plant and where 1,350 UAW members work, workers voted over 70 percent for Fain.
“The sad reality of this is, over the last year and a half, since President Curry’s been in power . . . the company has awarded more than three different products, and Belvidere could have had every one of those,” Fain said on a Facebook livestream last December. “They’ve had ample opportunity to take on the company and to get product there, and prevent thousands of layoffs.”
Anger has propelled rank and filers into leadership. But the flip side of anger is lack of hope.
“The new administration is going to have to start giving the members some confidence,” said Houldieson. “Right now, they lack confidence, and for good reason — they’ve been beaten down by corporate unionism for decades now. So we’re going to have to work on building a contract campaign that gives the membership more confidence than they’ve had in a long time.”
This attitude of resignation partly explains the low turnout in the election (14 percent of the four hundred thousand active members and six hundred thousand retirees) and the slim margin of victory. In addition, reformers said that members struggled to get information about the candidates in order to make an informed decision.
At first, the Administration Caucus had relied on the sleepy internal life of the union to protect it from the insurgents and tried to pretend the election wasn’t happening, giving it little publicity. “The Administration Caucus didn’t campaign much in the first round because they thought they had it in the bag,” said Houldieson. “They are used to just having their way.” But they hadn’t faced a one-member-one-vote election before.
After the reformers’ victories in December, the Administration Caucus roused from its lethargy and Curry pulled out all the stops.
His strategy was to get Administration Caucus loyalists — appointed and elected officials — to campaign in Ford locals, the home base of his running mate Chuck Browning, who has been the UAW vice president in charge of Ford. Their message was that Fain, from Stellantis, would somehow discriminate against Ford workers.
Curry, who was an assembler at Freightliner Trucks in North Carolina before he became a union official, won in Region 1A to the west of Detroit and also won in large Ford plants in Region 8 in the South, where turnout increased by 41 percent in the runoff. Fain took a majority in the union’s other seven regions.
Rebellion From Below
Plucked from the shop floor, UAW Members United challenger Daniel Vicente won the runoff vote for director of Region 9, which covers western and central New York, New Jersey, and most of Pennsylvania.
What motivated him to seek union office? Vicente, a machine operator and a convention delegate representing Local 644 in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, credited a hazardous incident at his current job at Dometic, which makes steering control cables for boats, and the short shrift a local union official paid him once he brought the incident to his attention.
His nerve was steeled at the July UAW convention in Detroit when he saw delegates, in the convention’s closing hours, reverse their previous vote to boost strike pay — at the Administration Caucus’s request.
In a heartfelt Facebook post on March 3, Vicente wrote about growing up in a blue-collar family and the bonds of solidarity he has forged with fellow workers on the shop floor, writing about a coworker, Mohamed Aitqol: “You and I have pulled 12 hours shifts together, we sweated it out in the summers and froze half to death in the winters on these machines.”
He promised to carry with him that spirit of solidarity as he travels Region 9 to meet with local members and leaders to together transform the union.
“The race is done, so now the hard part begins,” he said.