UAW Reformers Just Won Control of the Union. They Want to Turn It Into a Fighting Union.
Unite All Workers for Democracy, the reform caucus in the United Auto Workers, just won sweeping victories in leadership elections. Now they’re looking to transform the UAW, one of the largest unions in the country, into a democratic fighting machine.
“They’re trying to figure out how they can steal this one,” one of my coworkers said after I told her the news that the ballot count in the United Auto Workers (UAW) would be delayed by yet another week. “They” meaning the caucus that has held power in the UAW for the past seven decades, led by President Ray Curry. A week has passed since our conversation, and reform challenger Shawn Fain currently stands with a 505-vote lead, with only roughly six hundred unresolved challenged ballots. He is now the presumptive winner.
On Thursday, the Curry team sent out a press release filled with accusations of impropriety by the reformer campaign, including questioning the eligibility of recently elected Region 9 director Daniel Vicente and sounding the alarm about “disenfranchisement of UAW members.” These are odd claims — voters’ information was kept under the slapdash mailing address system the old guard has controlled for years — but it’s clear the incumbent Administration Caucus is fighting tooth and nail to hold onto office.
Vicente, a machine operator in Pottstown, Pennsylvania and his local’s secretary and education committee chair, is a member of the UAW Members United slate, a group endorsed by the rank-and-file caucus Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD). Five of their other candidates have already won their positions outright. Secretary-Treasurer Margaret Mock, Region 1 director LaShawn English, and Region 9A director Brandon Mancilla easily prevailed over their only opposition from the incumbent slate.
The UAW Members United candidates vying for two of the three slots, Rich Boyer and Mike Booth, both passed the threshold to avoid a runoff election while facing the three Curry team candidates, along with three independent candidates. The independent candidate for UAW Region 2B, David Green, also ran against a Curry team candidate and won outright.
Since joining UAWD, I have met workers from other plants, companies, and sectors of our union, from aerospace, agriculture implement, and other manufacturing, along with many higher education and legal service workers. And it’s confirmed what I’ve thought for years: our union is full of some of the strongest, smartest, and most driven people I’ll ever meet. Unite All Workers for Democracy isn’t just a clever name. We’re building a union that will help every worker realize their true potential so the working class can start winning again.
Building the Caucus
UAWD formed during the 2019 UAW strike at General Motors and the corruption scandal that led to thirteen high-ranking union officials being charged in federal court for accepting kickbacks and bribes and embezzling union funds. UAWD’s founding members — rank-and-file workers and retirees — joined an effort with other workers across the union to pass resolutions at their locals to call for a special convention to change elections for the International Executive Board (IEB) from the convention system, in which delegates vote on nominated candidates, to a secret ballot system of direct elections open to all UAW members. The constitutional conventions have been carefully controlled by the current IEB: candidates were selected from the ranks of a single party within the union — the Administration Caucus, established by Walter Reuther in the UAW’s early years — for over seventy years.
Efforts to reform the election system were cut short during the COVID-19 pandemic, with most locals canceling their meetings for months or even more than a year. Many manufacturing and warehouse locals did not allow for meetings over Zoom. The effort to win direct elections was given new life when a consent decree between the union and the federal government allowed for a secret ballot referendum for all members over the question of switching from the convention and delegate system to direct elections — what is commonly referred to as “one-member, one-vote.”
After this, UAWD and many other members began promoting awareness of the referendum and the need for direct elections. The referendum passed almost two to one, despite not much effort to promote it beyond the efforts of UAWD and many other advocates. (Turnout, however, was anemic at just under 14 percent. Most members either didn’t know about the referendum vote or became too cynical over the years to even bother.)
UAWD kept on after this win, focusing efforts on the 2022 constitutional convention. We trained activists to run for delegates and put out several resolutions for UAW members to pass in their locals. One frequently submitted resolution, an increase of weekly strike pay from $275 to $400, was voted in by the UAW IEB just under two months before the convention.
As the convention kicked off, UAWD members started to plan for a difficult fight. They decided on a few key resolutions to attempt to pull out of committee, one of which would have been to confront the issue of tiers. When a contract contains tiers, a subset of workers starts at a lower pay rate and/or weaker benefit package than others, topping out well below the maximum pay of the rest of the workers as well. It’s been impossible for workers on lower tiers to catch up. New hires under contracts with subsidiaries are still paid less than what I was making when hired in 2006 as a summer temp.
Defined-benefit pensions are also a thing of the past, with workers having to make do with a 401(k) match they may not be able to afford to take full advantage of with their lower pay, while also having to manage their portfolio on their own. Even the annual profit-sharing payout, a big local news item early every year, only amounts to 25 percent of the amount workers under the master agreement receive.
Unfortunately, UAWD delegates were not able to enshrine a “no tiers” policy in our constitution, with two-thirds of delegates being swayed by arguments that it would tie the bargaining team’s hands, or that it should be an issue voted on in a separate bargaining convention. But we forced a debate on it, and we also passed a motion to begin paying strike pay on the first day of a strike (instead of day eight, as was the policy in the past). This makes strikes easier for those who haven’t worked long enough to save up a financial cushion.
Passing a resolution from the floor should be a normal development for a convention, but it’s a very rare occurrence in the UAW. Upon reading the minutes from previous conventions, you might think there was a contest to see which delegate could list the most positive qualities of their regional director before speaking. Upon watching videos of the conventions, you might think yelling and using a noisemaker to drown out a delegate nominating a candidate not put forward by the current administration was a totally normal and appropriate response.
But this was a new convention with a caucus organized to flip the script. Even those not in UAWD felt emboldened by what was shown to be possible. One delegate, then on strike at Case New Holland, brought a resolution to increase strike pay to $500 a week. It passed easily. But two days later, at the behest of the leadership, another delegate brought the same issue to another vote in the last few hours of the convention. It was defeated as easily as it was adopted.
Were the delegates more clearheaded in the final day than they were earlier in the week? Or were they influenced by the Administration Caucus, which wasn’t quite ready to turn over the convention proceedings to the membership — nor to make striking more attractive?
The convention was also where the nominations for the various IEB positions were made. Afterward, election season began. UAWD members began to leaflet our locals. Phone- and text-bankers reached some of the major activists who helped us get the word out about the referendum one year ago to measure support for the UAW Members United slate. A communications strategy committee and even a meme team formed to plan our messaging both online and off.
Our candidates campaigned hard for themselves as well. In the week of the election there were meet and greets at local bars. Some candidates planned cookouts in parks and fundraisers at bowling alleys. Several took a road trip together to leaflet at the gates at plants all over the Midwest and met up with supporters nearby. All that was left to do was to keep up the momentum through the election and hope it resonated with the membership.
Unite All Workers
It’s common in elections to focus on how one side or the other “got it all wrong,” but I have no doubt about the love for our union the vast majority of Curry voters have. The same is true for members who sat out the referendum and both rounds of the election. Nonvoting members and others have not seen their union as a force for good in their lives, seeing it instead as a group of people who make deals with their employers for them every few years when their contracts are up.
To treat one’s union as a third party in this way is often seen as falling for a right-wing talking point and discouraged by most people in the labor movement. But I don’t think that most people who refer to the union in this manner do so on purpose, or even realize it’s a bad way of thinking of their union. We need to build unions that don’t simply offer to fight for their membership, but fight with them and constantly challenge them to fight for issues they care about.
What’s stood in the way is a caucus whose only ideology has been to hold onto power at the expense of everything else. The caucus’s recent attacks are emblematic of its attitude of blaming everyone but itself. The bargaining convention is roughly a week away, and the fact that the caucus is willing to drag the election through for a last-ditch, certain-to-fail effort instead of letting the delegates get to work tells workers everything they need to know.
Our fights on the horizon are many. Harassment and discrimination are still major issues in all workplaces. My union siblings in higher education are up against universities that function as unaccountable judge and juror and often protect harassers in positions of power. Tiers have also made it into some of their agreements as well. In auto, we have made progress on eliminating tiers after ratifying our last contract, but the door has been left wide open for companies to hire workers at electric vehicle (EV) plants who will follow completely separate contracts based on their working for a subsidiary or as a part of a joint venture with an electronics or battery manufacturer. And even solving this particular issue won’t fully endear auto workers to EVs. There are still issues workers have with the transition, such as affordability of the products and the integrity of the electric grid. Several major outages over the past two years alone have left over a million residents in the Detroit area without power, many for over a week at a time.
There’s a phrase on the shop floor, “they can do that,” that you’ll hear when management does whatever it wants. The same hand-wave response can be used whenever union leaders act without input from the membership, or when politicians tune out their constituents. But we’re building a union that understands that our power is in the working class, and we only win when we bring everyone together to face our problems head-on. So goodbye to “they can do that.” We’re all sick of hearing you. It’s time we set our own terms. It’s time we start saying, “we can do that!”