Workplace Fairness

Menu

Skip to main content

  • print
  • decrease text sizeincrease text size
    text

Opening the Door to a More Democratic UAW

Share this post

In December the leadership of the United Auto Workers reached a settlement with the Justice Department that opens the door to election of top union officers by referendum vote of the membership. That might well end more than 70 years of one-party control and help democratize a union once known for animated internal debate and competitive leadership contests.

The settlement provides for six years of oversight by a court-appointed monitor with extensive powers, including the authority to veto new UAW staff hires and block candidates for office who do not meet an anti-corruption standard.

More important, the agreement calls for a vote of all 400,000 members to decide whether they want direct election of top leaders, or to continue with the current system whereby delegates choose the national leadership at each constitutional convention, held every four years.

According to the timetable in the court order, the referendum, overseen by the monitor, should take place by September 2021. If members vote for direct election of officers, another union-wide vote to select them would take place in 2022.

LACK OF DEMOCRACY AT THE CORE

The deal ends a sweeping federal investigation that uncovered embezzlement, bribery, and cover-ups by 11 high-ranking union officials, including two former presidents, Dennis Williams and Gary Jones. Together, these officials embezzled more than $1.5 million in dues money and took $3.5 million in illegal payments from executives of Fiat Chrysler, who sought to corruptly influence contract talks.

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who led the investigation, argued that lack of democracy has been at the core of the UAW’s problems. His anti-fraud complaint demonstrated that insularity and self-dealing on the union executive board created an environment where corruption could flourish. Thus, a small group on that board chose Jones to succeed Williams, even as both were complicit in the growing corruption scandal.

Although Schneider was a Trump appointee, his commitment to a referendum vote in the UAW was influenced by a new reform network of UAW members, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), which had already been working to build support for one-member-one-vote. In early 2020 their effort to call a special convention to do just that fell short, with 26 locals representing 60,000 UAW members in support, below the 80,000 needed.

ONE-PARTY REGIME

The UAW has been a one-party regime for many decades because the union convention, which elects all the top national officers, has been tightly controlled by an “Administration Caucus,” which routinely wins an overwhelming proportion of the delegate vote.

Actual decisions as to who will be nominated to lead the union are made by the 13-member international executive board—all of them members of the caucus. Sharp conflicts do take place on that body. In 1970 Leonard Woodcock defeated Douglas Fraser by just one vote, and in 1982 Owen Bieber secured the top slot after nearly a year of internal conflict.

But once the executive board chooses a slate, top union officials close ranks. “Teamwork in the leadership, solidarity in the ranks” was a slogan the UAW deployed to confront the auto corporations during union’s post-World War II heyday. But today that idea has come to stand for near autocratic control.

The Administration Caucus wields a variety of levers that create loyalty among the thousand-plus convention delegates: the promise of a staff job, support in a local election, or conversely, criticism and marginalization from above. The eight UAW regional directors, also chosen at convention, are the key disciplinarians. They keep close tabs on signs of discontent among the locals and can recommend appointment to or dismissal from staff jobs.

The UAW under this regime has been plagued not only with corruption but also, perhaps more profoundly, with a culture of collaboration with employers. Wages and benefits declined as the union accepted concessions and a multi-tier workforce, allowed locals to be pitted against one another, and largely failed to organize the growing nonunion share of U.S. auto production.

UNION-WIDE BALLOT

A union-wide ballot would enable all UAW members to vote directly for the president and other top officers, which is also the way officials in the Teamsters, Machinists, Laborers, Postal Workers (APWU), and Steelworkers are chosen.

The Teamsters adopted that system in a 1989 legal settlement designed to root out wrongdoing and racketeering; the one-member-one-vote system was championed then by the reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), along with oversight by a government-appointed election supervisor.

Before then, Teamster conventions had been little more than coronation ceremonies for a close-knit group of increasingly corrupt officials. Union-wide elections created a much more participatory organization.

In the 1990s a Teamster reform slate led by Ron Carey held office for five years. Thereafter an old guard headed by James P. Hoffa has led the union, but it has been continuously challenged by TDU and other reform forces. As a consequence, says TDU organizer Ken Paff, Hoffa and his allies have had to “police themselves,” helping keep out at least some of the most corrupt and self-serving officials.

Union-wide elections serve to energize the rank and file. In 2016 the TDU-backed Teamsters United slate won 49 percent of the vote, electing six vice presidents to the executive board and winning top leadership posts in two big regions covering Southern and Midwestern states.

In the NewsGuild, part of the Communications Workers, Jon Schleuss, a 32-year old reporter at the Los Angeles Times, used a 2019 national ballot of Guild members to oust Bernie Lunzer, a three-term incumbent twice his age.

A notable feature of the contest was an actual debate—unusual in the union movement—moderated by retired CWA President Larry Cohen. It took place in the form of a conference call, with members submitting text and email questions before and during.

DIRECT ELECTIONS NO PANACEA

Referendum election of top officers is not a panacea, however. Democracy in union affairs requires organizing a group or caucus with a clear program, broad appeal, and articulate leaders.

During the first dozen years of its existence, the UAW was one of the nation’s most democratic and progressive unions. Two factions, one a Communist-backed coalition, the other led by Walter Reuther, vied for leadership, not just on the executive board but also in almost all locals and regions. Debate took place on every conceivable topic: bargaining strategy, strike tactics, race relations, foreign policy, and political action, inside the Democratic Party or to its left.

The union’s annual convention proved an exciting venue for argument, coalition-building, and education of the membership. Reuther, who would become the union’s legendary president in the postwar years, would park himself at the entrance to the convention bookstall to talk and debate delegates for hours at a time.

When the entire convention heard leaders of each caucus argue key issues and then vote on rival resolutions, the national press corps put the results on the front pages of leading newspapers the very next day.

All this ended when the Reuther caucus won all the top leadership posts in 1947. Thereafter, opponents were kept off the executive board or coopted onto the staff. A “flower fund,” to which all staff and officers had to contribute, helped sustain Reuther caucus control. (It still exists, providing an illegal slush fund for some of the UAW officials enmeshed in the recent corruption scandal). Conventions became less frequent and internal debate declined.

AN INSTRUCTIVE CONTRAST

The history of the United Steelworkers (USW) offers an instructive contrast. When John L. Lewis and Philip Murray created the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in the mid-1930s, it was a tightly-controlled institution in which all officers and organizers were appointed from the top. Murray transformed it into the USW in 1942 and instituted union-wide elections.

This was not designed to democratize the organization, however, but rather to ensure that UAW-style factionalism would not break out at either the union convention or in the districts and locals. Since the leadership monopolized communications with the rank and file and chose most of the staff, their power seemed secure.

But from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s a series of union-wide election contests erupted in the USW, with challengers winning upwards of 40 percent of all votes, and perhaps a majority in basic steel locals.

The most progressive was that of Ed Sadlowski in 1977, which sought to turn the USW toward a more militant posture in bargaining and political action. But because his defeat coincided with the onset of widespread mill closings and layoffs, the Sadlowski campaign also marked the end of union-wide challenges to USW leadership.

Thereafter collective bargaining in steel was far more decentralized and the union became more heterogeneous, so the basis for a union-wide opposition diminished. And USW leaders generally avoided the kind of money scandals that plagued the UAW, the Teamsters, and the Laborers.

WORK CUT OUT FOR THEM

Reformers in the UAW have their work cut out for them. They must organize for two elections: the referendum to determine whether the union will move to a union-wide vote, and then the election of top officers themselves. Meanwhile, UAW President Rory Gamble has promised to “educate” the membership on the “issues” with a union-wide vote, and the Administration Caucus will likely put its formidable political machinery into action to lobby hard against direct elections.

Those obstacles can be overcome, however, if UAW members and local leaders come to understand that democratic control of their organization is essential to building a larger and more potent union. To this end the UAWD aspires to transform the UAW “back into the militant union that launched the Flint sit-down, championed civil rights, and took on the most powerful companies in the world.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nelson Lichtenstein is the author of State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, as well as a biography of Walter Reuther.


Share this post

The UAW Vote in Mississippi is a Battle for the Soul of the U.S. Labor Movement

Share this post

After years of painstaking work by United Auto Workers (UAW) organizers to build support for a union at the big Nissan auto and truck assembly plant near Canton, Miss., the workers themselves will vote today and tomorrow on whether to accept UAW their collective bargaining voice at the plant.

“I think it [union approval] will pass,” UAW president Dennis Williams told a press conference just days before the vote, “but we’re doing an ongoing evaluation. We’ve been thinking about it for six to seven months,” roughly since the UAW held a large march and rally at the factory attended by Bernie Sanders. The union says it is particularly concerned about a surge in the kind of unlawful management tactics to scare workers that brought charges against Nissan this week from the National Labor Relations Board.

The Canton factory is one of only three Nissan factories worldwide where workers do not have a union. Built in 2003, it is one of a spate of auto “transplants,” or foreign-owned factories built with state subsidies for the past three decades, largely in the South and border states.

Many see the upcoming vote as another test of whether unions can thrive in the South, where union membership has historically been well below the national average. However, the battle is far greater. Now the corporate strategies and values of the South have persisted and influenced multinational companies, as well as labor relations and politics in the North. The Nissan campaign is best conceived as a battle for the U.S. labor movement.

Nissan has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Organizing the South

Organized labor, usually prodded by leftists in the movement, has undertaken high-profile campaigns in the South to organize unions across the racial divides. Such drives were especially prominent during the 1930s-era organizing upsurge and the post-World War II “Operation Dixie,” which lacked adequate support from existing unions and was plagued by internal political divisions.

The UAW has, at various times, escalated organizing in the South, especially when General Motors was considering relocating much production there in the 1960s—and when the transplant growth surged in recent decades.

Despite the shortcomings of labor’s campaigns, many union strategists think that unions can only reverse their decline by directly tackling the racist strategy of employers and their conservative political allies. But employers have many tools to divide workers, such as Nissan’s employment of temporary, contract workers to divide a predominately African-American workforce.

In recent years, the South has suffered key organizing blows, including the big defeat in January for the Machinists’ union trying to organize the new Boeing factory in Charleston, S.C., and the limited UAW success organizing a skilled trades union at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn. against a supposedly neutral employer. Such defeats typically inspire funereal chants for labor rights and unions, but sound like party music for managers and investors.

Yet, some organizers dispute that the South is impossible territory. One veteran organizer with the AFL-CIO, who has overseen many organizing drives in the South and asked not to be identified or directly quoted, said that he thought it was not significantly more difficult to organize in the South. It just took more time and more money.

The organizer cited one success that defied expectations: the campaigns over roughly 15 years to organize 26,000 workers and preserve business at Louisiana’s giant Avondale shipyards for a shifting cast of corporate owners doing repair and rebuilding work mainly on military contracts. Ultimately, a decline in military orders led its latest owner to close the shipyards, wiping out the organizing victory.

“The unions often do not realize it, but they have been winning in the South more than in the Midwest for years,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell University labor relations professor who specializes in research on union organizing. “Because [in the South] there are more women working, more African Americans, and because there’s less high-tech work.” Each of those categories of workers is more pro-union than their counterparts, thus building in a small theoretical advantage in the South.

The South’s poor labor standards are spreading

In the end, it may be that the poor labor standards of the South are spreading nationwide. The ascendant conservative political power of the new Republican Party, linked with the more aggressively anti-worker and anti-union policies of big corporations and financial firms, indicate that, in this country’s long Civil War, the South is gaining ground.

Consider what has occurred from 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” ads were on the horizon, as well as in 2016, when Donald Trump pledged to “make America great again.” Then and now, most people would consider Michigan and Wisconsin as typically northern, in terms of labor conditions and union density. Yet over that period, federal data shows that the percentage of all workers in Michigan who were covered by union contracts dropped from 32.8 percent in 1983 to 15.5 percent in 2016. For Wisconsin, the share dropped from 26.9 percent to 9.0 percent.

Unions are losing members and failing to gain new ones at an adequate rate to avoid the rough halving of the union share of the workforce over the past 15 years in most of both the South and the North.

Assault on workers knows no boundaries

It will be better for workers everywhere if the Canton, Miss., workers vote for the union, but management still has the upper hand. Workers are still weak and getting weaker nearly everywhere, with partial exceptions, like the Fight for 15 movement, which flourishes in nearly all of the country.

“Right to work” laws threaten unions nationwide, by prohibiting them from charging agency fees to workers who do not join the union but benefit from actions it takes. In recent years, the widespread passage of such laws outside of the South—now extending to half of all states—is a clear indication of the decline in union power.

Workers in Canton may win a union for a variety of reasons beyond the basic proposition that they need collective power to counter the power of their bosses. Or they may reject the union due to fear engendered by Nissan and its anti-union campaign, out of conservative political beliefs or for other reasons.

The best union organizers—and some very good organizers have played a major role at Nissan—understand how important it is to involve workers themselves as-organizers in reaching out to workers. In addition, organizers recognize it is vitally important to mobilize the progressive leaders and groups in the community for support, and employ a wide assortment of tactics to minimize the influence of the boss’s war on unions—a war conducted in large part on turf and terms favorable to the employer.

However, if the labor movement is striving to with significant gains for workers, it must create a progressive strategy for politics, workplace organizing and culture that focuses on the working class very broadly construed, including multiple levels of poverty, affluence and job histories. U.S. union organizing will need to strengthen and expand its community activities to develop a broader range of strategies to defeat racism. Within such a political context, union organizing might prosper—and workers might do so as well.

Whether the UAW does or does not win this summer, future successful organizing of workers in their communities and workplaces require an alternative political force that is more supportive and transformative.

 This piece was originally published at In These Times on August 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

Share this post

Big Organizing Victory in the South: Volkswagen Workers to Be Represented by UAW

Share this post

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallAnother story about working people in the South successfully organizing comes our way via Chattanooga, Tennessee, where skilled trades employees at Volkswagen’s plant in the town voted overwhelmingly to be represented by UAW Local 42. More than 70% of workers who cast ballots voted for the union.

Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42, said:

A key objective for our local union always has been moving toward collective bargaining for the purpose of reaching a multiyear contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga. We have said from the beginning of Local 42 that there are multiple paths to reach collective bargaining. We believe these paths will give all of us a voice at Volkswagen in due time.

Ray Curry, director of UAW Region 8, commended the workers after the vote:

Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga have had a long journey in the face of intense political opposition, and they have made steady progress. We’re proud of their courage and persistence. We urge Volkswagen to respect the decision of its employees and recognize the local union as the representative of the skilled trades unit.

Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of UAW, urged Volkswagen to drop plans to appeal the election:

It’s overdue time for Volkswagen to refocus on the values that made it a successful brand — environmental sustainability and meaningful employee representation. The hardworking members of UAW Local 42 stand ready to assist in the Volkswagen comeback story. Our hope is that the company now is ready to move forward in the German spirit of co-determination.

This blog originally appeared at AFLCIO.org on December 7, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


Share this post

2010 Vehicles Built By Union Members In The United States and Canada

Share this post

Support union jobs in the U.S. and Canada

This guide is prepared by the UAW to provide information for consumers who want to purchase vehicles produced by workers who enjoy the benefits and protections of a union contract.

All these vehicles are made in the United States or Canada by members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) or Canadian Auto Workers (CAW).

Because of the integration of U.S. and Canadian vehicle production, all these vehicles include significant UAW-made content and support the jobs of UAW members.

However, the vehicles marked with a single asterisk (*) are produced in the United States and another country. Light-duty (LD) crew cab models of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, marked with a double asterisk (**), are only manufactured in Mexico. Other models are made in the United States.

When purchasing one of these vehicles, check the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

A VIN beginning with “1”, “4” or “5” identifies a U.S.-made vehicle; “‘2:’ identifies a Canadian-made vehicle.

Not all vehicles made in the United States or Canada are built by union-represented workers.  Vehicles not listed here, even if produced in the United States or Canada, are not union-made vehicles.

UAW CARS
Buick Lacrosse
Buick Lucerne
Cadillac CTS
Cadillac DTS
Cadillac STS
Chevrolet Cobalt
Chevrolet Corvette
Chevrolet Cruze
Chevrolet Malibu
Chrysler Sebring
Dodge Avenger
Dodge Caliber
Dodge Viper
Ford Focus
Ford Mustang
Ford Taurus
Lincoln MKS
Mazda6
Mitsubishi Eclipse
Mitsubishi Galant
Pontiac G6
Pontiac Vibe
Saturn Aura
Toyota Corolla*

UAW PICKUPS
Chevrolet Colorado
Chevrolet Silverado**
Dodge Dakota
Dodge Ram Pickup*
Ford F Series
Ford Ranger
GMC Canyon
GMC Sierra**
Mazda B-series
Toyota Tacoma*

UAW SUVs/CUVs
Buick Enclave
Cadillac Escalade ESV
Cadillac Escalade/Hybrid
Chevrolet Suburban
Chevrolet Traverse
Dodge Nitro
Ford Escape/Hybrid
Ford Expedition
Ford Explorer
Ford Explorer Sport Trac
GMC Acadia
GMC Tahoe/Hybrid
GMC Yukon/Hybrid
GMC Yukon XL
H2 Hummer
H3 Hummer
Jeep Commander
Jeep Compass
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Jeep Liberty
Jeep Patriot
Jeep Wrangler
Lincoln Navigator
Mazda Tribute/Hybrid
Mercury Mariner/Hybrid
Mercury Mountaineer
Mitsubishi Endeavor
Saturn Outlook

UAW VANS
Chevrolet Express
Ford Econoline
GMC Savana

CAW CARS
Chevrolet Camaro
Chevrolet Impala
Chrysler 300
Dodge Challenger
Dodge Charger
Ford Crown Victoria
Lincoln Town Car
Mercury Grand Marquis

CAW SUVs/CUVs
Chevrolet Equinox
Ford Edge
Ford Flex
GMC Terrain
Lincoln MKT
Lincoln MKX
Pontiac Torrent

UAW/CAW Vans
Chrysler Town & Country
Dodge Grand Caravan
VW Routan

* The vehicles marked with a single asterisk (*) are produced in the United States and another country.

** The light-duty (LD) crew cab versions of the vehicles marked with a double asterisk (**) are only manufactured in Mexico. Other models are made in the United States.

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

This article originally appeared in UnionReview.com on September 18, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


Share this post

Follow this Blog

Subscribe via RSS Subscribe via RSS

Or, enter your address to follow via email:

Recent Posts

Forbes Best of the Web, Summer 2004
A Forbes "Best of the Web" Blog

Archives

  • Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
  • Find an Employment Lawyer

  • Support Workplace Fairness

 
 

Find an Employment Attorney

The Workplace Fairness Attorney Directory features lawyers from across the United States who primarily represent workers in employment cases. Please note that Workplace Fairness does not operate a lawyer referral service and does not provide legal advice, and that Workplace Fairness is not responsible for any advice that you receive from anyone, attorney or non-attorney, you may contact from this site.