New Directions for Auto Workers

Peter Downs

IMAGINE, IF you will, an office; not the cramped shabby office of clerk or junior executive, but a large, richly furnished office on an upper floor of a handsome office building. Thick, new carpet shields the floor. Acceptably artistic drawings and photographs grace the walls. Several overstuffed, leather easy chairs occupying the center and one side of the room face the area’s dominant presence: a massive but gleaming mahogany desk.

Now, imagine the people in this office. Men: middle-aged, white, probably clean shaven with neatly trimmed graying hair. The kind of men who wear conservative gray or blue business suits and see their barbers once a week.

The number of men gathered in this office—three, four, maybe five—denotes an exclusive club. Setting in motion events that will sweep like a tornado through the lives of millions of people, these gray men, fixed as they are on the “big picture,” give hardly a thought to such people.

Who are these men? Are they captains of industry, of finance, or of labor?

For millions of Americans, the behavior of the three is interchangeable. They see their union leaders in the above picture. For “the union,” to them, has become another boss telling them how to live their lives. The spread of that image among union members has given impetus to reform movements, such as the New Directions Movement (NDM) in the United Auto Workers, battling the union hierarchy about the very concept of what a union is and how it functions.


NDM began in the autumn of 1985. Several local union officers in the UAW’s Region 5 felt caught between an unresponsive international union apparatus and an increasingly restless and dissatisfied membership. Region 5 encompasses eight states: Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nevada, Louisiana and Texas.

We felt abandoned by the International,” explains one of the founders of NDM. “I had seen several good local officers defeated in their bids for re-election because of what the International did. The members can’t reach the International, but they can reach us.”

For five years companies had besieged local unions by demanding concessions and moving work from union plants to nonunion shops and companies. For five years the International had seemed to do nothing about it except offer the companies’ concessions. Instead of strengthening organizing efforts, the International Executive Board actually cut staff and rebuffed local unions that sought subsidies to add organizers of their own.

The locals most badly hurt were small locals and those with their own wages and benefits which were not part of a national agreement—as is usually the case in aerospace and auto parts. General Motors workers suffered as well, however, once the union’s International Executive Board agreed to let the company negotiate exceptions to the national pattern with individual locals. One Ford activist says he joined NDM because he saw what was happening at GM and understood the consequences of “pattern bargaining and pattern concessions.”

On March 1, 1986, a meeting of local union leaders in Oklahoma City approved statements on bargaining, organizing, the servicing of locals and internal communication in a call for “New Directions.” The statements, compiled in a report that was addressed and issued to “UAW Region 5 Leadership” took the International leadership to task for abandoning the local unions.

None of the statements adopted by NDM were particularly radical. What was radical was the suggestion that the International leaders were not fulfilling their responsibilities. As stated in the New Directions call letter, they were “getting in bed” with the companies and making “backdoor” deals, while union staffers were “jamming the company line down our throats” or leaving local leaders “out there on our own.”

The Tucker Campaign

None of that mattered much to the Administrative Caucus—the caucus ruling the UAW for the last forty years— until NDM nominated a candidate for regional director. Then the administration reacted with a vengeance. The candidate, assistant regional director Jerry Tucker, was fired. Local officers backing him were threatened with reprisals against themselves or their locals. Union dues money was funneled into incumbent Ken Worley’s campaign. Worley also illegally appointed delegates to attend the convention from small locals.

NDM was radical simply bemuse local leaders had the temerity to organize independently of the Administrative Caucus and promote a candidate for a national office that could be won. The administration reacted so vehemently because the issue was not simply one of political program, but of power.

Until the union’s constitutional convention in June 1986, NDM labored in relative obscurity. Then, Jerry Tucker lost the election by 0.16 votes (convention delegates cast weighted votes based on the number of members in their locals).

The closeness of the vote and the overwhelming evidence of election fraud made Tucker an instant celebrity. The decision to protest the election to the U.S. Department of Labor and thus continue the fight against abuses of power made him a hero.

The Issues

The decision to seek a rerun of the Region 5 elections set the stage for some dramatic changes in NDM. Numerous hazards stood in the way of success: the courts and the federal government are notoriously slow and expensive. Delay and expense could cause the movement to dissipate or consume its own activists. Tucker himself could be barred from running again if he did not maintain his UAW membership or took a job somewhere else.

Supporters of the NDM had a choice. They could accept the loss and return to the administration fold, which some did. They could focus on the legal strategy and concern themselves only with local issues until a court ruling, which probably would have cost them any chance of winning a rerun election. Some NDM supporters went that route.

The majority, however, decided to expose the Administrative Caucus and broaden the movement’s base among the membership by distributing leaflets in the plants, holding meetings, recruiting new activists and collecting money.

Reaching out to the membership required that NDM clarify its vision of unionism and sharpen its critique of the administration. That process wasn’t easy, and in so doing, more of the early backers of NDM fell away and rejoined the Administrative Caucus. As NDM enunciated its vision of unionism by campaigning for the election of all union representatives, for membership approval of bargaining policies as well as all contracts or contract changes, and for in-plant mobilizations to fight corporate offensives, new rank-and-file activists swelled its ranks and the movement’s appeal broadened outside Region 5.

Democracy and job security remained uppermost in the concerns of the rank-and-file. The administration argued that jobs could be secured by making companies competitive. This was the argument that justified concessions, speedup, lower benefits and deteriorating working conditions. It was an argument for accepting a smaller unionized workforce, in which the union bureaucracy would still have a place, though many union members would not.

NDM activists argued that when workers compete to see who can do the most work for the least money in the worst conditions, all workers lose. We expect management to encourage that kind of competition, they said, but not the union.

On a global level, however, the job-security argument benefitted the administration. Management had created overcapacity in the automobile assembly and auto-parts industries, through investment in new plants and technology tore-place older facilities and through decisions to move work to new low-wage, non-union or foreign factories.

With the overcapacity thus created, management pitted workforces against each other to see which could work cheapest, a process autoworkers call “whipsawing,” which nurtured feelings among workers that they must be cooperative just to have a chance to their plant open.

Management used that same tactic during the delegate elections, threatening to close plants if the workers voted for NDM candidates or protested management’s actions. Conversely, management could, and did, promise to ‘try to’ keep a plant open if the workers voted for Administrative Caucus candidates in local or delegate elections.

On a more individual level, the job-security argument tended to benefit NDM. Union officers who accept speedup and work-rule concessions in the name of competitiveness are unwilling to fight for grievances around those issues.

Such failures of representation had comprised the main factor souring the membership on the administration and preparing the ground for NDM. Even members who agree with the administration’s arguments get angry when their own grievances get settled on management’s terms or, worse, left to collect dust in a drawer somewhere.

As one GM activist explains, the lack of representation sabotages job security “When management can go up to a worker on the line who has a settled grievance over how much work he [sic] can do, and ignores that settlement and adds work to the guy, and keeps adding work until he can’t do it all and fires him, then management can do that to any worker on the line. When the union refuses to fight for that guy, where’s your job security?”

The issue of democracy also cut both ways. Members want to have a voice in deciding what the union does. They want to decide whether to accept contracts and grievance settlements. They want to elect their own representatives. But they can’t They can’t elect International officers, or even benefits and health and safety representatives in the plants And the administration’s practice of changing contracts without even informing members of the changes strikes at the membership’s right to have a say over their working conditions.

The administration claims that it is creating real workplace democracy through “jointness” with management Region 6 Director Bruce Lee, for example, says that the team concept is the fulfillment of the UAW’s decades-old demands for worker dignity and workplace democracy. That claim, however, always played better with the public media than it did with UAW members, who, when they had a vote, often voted against teams, until repeated re-votes under threat of a plant closing finally brought the approval the International sought.

In the three years since the 1986 convention, NDM has become a major critic of jointness and the team concept Drawing on the analysis of Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter in Choosing Sides, NDM was able to raise debate among members, and to some extent in the public press, about team concept Articles supporting criticisms of the team concept even began to appear in business journals.

In the March-April 1989 issue of Harvard Business Review, Janice Klein wrote that “our conventional Western notions of worker self-management on the factory floor are often sadly incompatible with [team concept, just-in-time inventory, and statistical process control].”

Echoing team concept critics, Klein writes that such programs “eliminate all variations within production and therefore require strict adherence to rigid methods and procedures” [emphasis in original]. She adds that they cost workers their individual autonomy, their team autonomy and autonomy over methods. That’s not exactly the way Bruce Lee bills it.

Victory and Defeat

In April 1988 a federal judge ordered a new election for Region 5 director. Delegate elections supervised by the U.S. Department of Labor were held in May and June. A mini-convention, also supervised by the Labor Department, was held in September.

Jerry Tucker won—but now only nine months remained in the term of of-lice Tucker’s victory, however, so encouraged UAW oppositionists that soon there was talk of organizing NDM tickets in local delegate elections around the country.

A meeting in the Detroit suburb of Warren on January 8, 1989, drew over 800 people from at least five states. Activists around longtime dissidents Don Douglas and Pete Kelly (presidents of Locals 909 and 160 respectively) began to organize a campaign for Douglas for director of the combined Regions I and 1b under the NDM banner.

The Douglas campaign mushroomed into a rank-and-file crusade. Meanwhile workers from Indiana began building a statewide movement. “New Directions” slates sprouted in locals in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, Delaware and California.

The administration, however, was campaigning in earnest. Every staff member in the country was dunned for $500 for an anti-NDM campaign. Roy Wyse, administration candidate in Region 5, took a leave of absence to campaign full-time against Tucker. Staff members in Region 5 stopped servicing local unions in order to campaign. International secretary-treasurer Bill Casstevens made frequent trips into the region to tour Wyse through the plants.

In Region 1, gangs of staff representatives swept into the plants to campaign against Don Douglas. The administration, stunned by early lopsided locals in GM plants, tried to pit workers against each other along racial, gender, generational and employer lines. Corporate management also appeared to intervene with material support to administration delegates while threatening layoffs or plant closings if NDM delegate candidates won.

The International called retiree meetings to accuse NDM of wanting to take away retiree pensions and voting rights; and in at least six local unions in Region 5 and two in Region 1/1B, unusually heavy retiree votes provided administration-backed candidates with their margins of victory.

At Locals 110 in Fenton, Missouri, and 2175 in Brownsville, Texas, there was evidence of ballot stuffing. NDM delegate candidates lodged protests of election irregularities at over a dozen other locals. The administration this time had stolen not one election, but two. It was as if Owen Bieber and his Administrative Caucus were pursuing a scorched earth policy—seemingly preferring to destroy the vestiges of unionism in the UAW to losing their monopoly of power.

Estimating that NDM would have about 10 percent of delegates at the June 1989 convention, the administration orchestrated an image of overwhelming rejection of NDM. Their delegates were instructed not to talk to anyone in NDM, with hundreds of staffers watching to enforce the orders. Individuals selected to speak from the floor were given speeches to read condemning NDM as anti-union.

Groups of administration loyalists equipped with walkie-talkies received instructions as to when to cheer or boo. Such a device was designed to control the floor debate while putting on a show of democracy for the media.

Yet the convention was a success for NDM. It set the agenda for the convention debate and emerged with more support than it had going in. Three years ago dissidents accounted for a handful of voting delegates; this year they were backed by nearly 20 percent of the delegates on major issues.

The administration had intended to bury NDM instead it made NDM a second political party in the union, creating for the first time in decades a chance for the membership to take part in a debate.

NDM is poised to become a national movement in the UAW, with an October conference in St Louis. The goal is to develop a national NDM program, structure and recommendations for UAW bargaining objectives. NDM will have to face squarely two central issues competitiveness and movement building.

Competitiveness and the Future

NDM activists have responded to exhortations to compete either by pointing out that if workers everywhere compete by speedup and wage cutting, then they all get hurt; or by digging in and proclaiming, “Dammit, that’s not the union’s job.”

Both responses have their place, but miss the point for many workers Even the argument that the auto giants purposefully created overcapacity in order to whipsaw workers is beside the point: Many workers are convinced that their particular employer or plant is in trouble. Their question is how to save their jobs, without wondering if their concessions will put some other employer or plant in difficulty.

They lack, and New Directions has not provided, a clear view of the crisis of the world economy. Corporate and UAW economists paint a picture of a world economy booming, while individual firms and factories face greater economic uncertainty from increased competition, making concessions “unavoidable.”

This begs the question: why is competition more intense?

An alternative view sees the world economy itself in trouble, with competition yielding to increased mechanization, overcapacity and declining profit rates in every major capitalist country.

Concessions will not lift us out of the economic crisis, because the crisis is worldwide. Concessions only aggravate the crisis. This points to the need for a system-wide response focused on solidarity, not competition. (An analysis along these lines is provided by Anwar Shaikh in “The Current Economic Crisis: Causes And Implications,” published by Against the Current, 1989.)

Movement building, meanwhile, has tended to take a backseat to election cam-pains. NDM began as an electoral opposition in an arena largely hidden from the UAW’s membership. The loss in Anaheim propelled NDM toward the rank and file.

Since 1986 NDM leaders in Region 5 have struggled with practical meanings of democracy and rank-and-file power. But movement-building activities have been uneven throughout Region 5 and have also suffered elsewhere.

In Region I the history of New Directions is only that of an election campaign, emphasizing the candidate. New activists around the country are only beginning to struggle with issues of expanding decision-making circles, including new people, developing an alternative practice of struggle on the shop floor to the legalistic and elitist functioning of the existing union representation.

It is very difficult to break from the top-down flow of decisions and the passing of responsibility from the bottom up, because that is all everyone knows. It is how the company operates, how the union functions, the method in which union activists have been schooled. They are drilled constantly to take no action without first getting approval from higher up and to do what they are told.

They fear independent activity because it leads to trouble People get mad; opportunities for advancement disappear.

NDM is on the verge of becoming a national caucus. It can become more: a national movement for a new, democratic unionism. To do that, it must develop a support system to enable activists to accept rejection as well as success, to develop thick skins and strong stomachs for harassment in order to put the union—meaning the rank and file.—first. They cannot let there be peace, until there is justice.

November-December 1989, ATC 23

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *