A New Day for UAW Members?

Against the Current, No. 222, January/February 2023

Dianne Feeley

THE RECENT ELECTION in the United Auto Workers union (UAW) has produced a stunning overturn of the long-ruling Administration Caucus (AC) monopoly of power. Previous ATC articles have traced the history of the Administration Caucus’ control over the union apparatus and various caucuses through the years that have challenged the growing partnership between UAW officials and the corporations.

Even activists fighting for internal democracy and contracts that improved conditions were shocked by the level of corruption that has been uncovered. More than a dozen officers, including two UAW presidents, were convicted of stealing from the UAW treasury, taking kickbacks or demanding a cut from various enterprises.

Forced to work out a deal with the federal government to avoid having the union in receivership, the AC hoped to continue business as usual. However the federal mediator mandated that the UAW hold a membership referendum on how the International Executive Board (IEB) should be elected.

Last year Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a caucus formed to replace the delegated system of electing the UAW’s International Executive Board with one member, one vote, was able to win that referendum vote. However fewer than 15% of all members returned their ballots.

Many of us who campaigned for the one member, one vote position felt we knew why the turnout was so low: the leadership didn’t take the trouble to inform the membership. Those of us leafleting plant gates or speaking up at local union meetings did our best to get out the vote, but many workers have been discouraged over the years from thinking that anything they could do might change the direction or composition of the union.

Nonetheless the Administration Caucus still held power and controlled the union’s infrastructure. This was the message the AC delivered at the UAW Constitutional Convention last summer when they waited out delegate enthusiasm that raised strike pay to $500 a week early on. As delegates began to depart, the AC forced a revote and succeeded in reducing the amount to $400. Although one might wonder why they would want to be identified with lowering strike pay after raising officer salaries, this maneuver demonstrated who was still in charge.

The election campaign this fall had two caucuses running along with several individuals. The AC caucus, the Curry Solidarity Team, was headed up by Ray Curry. He had been appointed president by the IEB when President Gary Jones was indited. For its part, UAWD built a UAW Members United slate for half of the 14 elected offices.

The federal mediator set out the election process. This included a special issue of the UAW magazine, Solidarity, that contained information on every candidate and outlined the election procedure. Just as for the referendum vote, an outside firm was hired to mail out a ballot to every active and retired UAW member and conduct the voting.

The federal mediator also held debates for the top offices. Stephen Greenhouse, a nationally known labor reporter, chaired and asked questions. These are available on the mediator website.

This fall, as a UAWD member, I leafleted throughout the Detroit area at membership meetings and plant gates. My pitch was to elect the “anti-concessions, anti-corruption” slate. But many workers weren’t aware of the election time-table until they received their ballots in the mail.

However, I confess I wasn’t sure how well we could successfully challenge a caucus that has been in power since 1947. Since the concessions era, only one has been elected — Jerry Tucker — and that more than a quarter century ago!

Yet as the votes were counted and announced, of the seven candidates we ran, five were elected and were sworn into office December 12. Another important militant, Dave Green, was elected.

Two others on our slate, including our presidential candidate Shawn Fain, face a runoff in early 2023. With five candidates running for president, Fain trailed Curry by fewer than 600 votes.

Fain is an electrician who served five terms as a skilled trades committeeperson and shop chair and has served over the past decade as an international representative.

He opposed the “alternative work schedule” when it was rolled out in 2003 and opposed the introduction of tiered contracts at Chrysler in 2007. When Chrysler threatened to close a number of plants in 2009, Fain worked to organize protests at Chrysler headquarters.

Key to winning the 2023 election runoff will be demonstrating that transforming the UAW is achievable. Especially for UAW members in the auto sector, where even when workers went out on strike, the resulting contracts did not end tiered wages, return cost-of-living wages or restore health care and pension benefits.

UAWD candidates will need to carry out several campaigns at once: administer the union effectively, encourage members to participate, get ready for the 2023 contract negotiations in the auto industry, roll out plans to take on the non-union auto parts industry, support UAW nurses, state workers and graduate students in their fight for better wages and working conditions and reach out to international campaigns that mirror our own struggles. It’s a project that means winning the last two races for UAW top offices, and mapping out a strategy that puts corporations on notice.

January-February 2023, ATC 222

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