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Opening the Door to a More Democratic UAW

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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.


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HAPPY LABOR DAY

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Will DurstPoor Labor Day. Gets no respect. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of celebrations. The runt of the holiday litter. Just hearing the name conjures up depressing images of a last plastic souvenir sports bottle of lemonade poured on the dying charcoal briquettes of summer. It’s the end of the bright light and the beginning of the darkness. Vacation is over and the fun has expired.

White shoes are put back in the closet and storm windows taken out. Watermelons are replaced on the floor next to produce bins by pumpkins. Swimming pools get drained and ice cream trucks convoy back into their hibernatory garages. All the red, white and blue motifs give way to orange and black. The solstice is dead. Long live the autumnal equinox.

As a kid, I was too busy running from the shadow of school’s return and the end of my freedom to pay much attention to the meaning of the holiday. And when I did, it made no sense. Honor work? Who would do that? Might as well set aside a day to venerate broccoli. I thought of work as a thing to be avoided not celebrated. Chores squared.

But then I entered the real world and desired things, like food and shelter and clothing and gasoline, which forced me into gainful employment. And it was surprisingly enjoyable. Not the getting up at 4 am part, but the fruit of accomplishment deal- yeah. Got my social security number at the age of 12. Held over 100 different jobs. Then in 1981, I was able to earn a living at my chosen craft. Making me an extremely lucky man.

Without labor, we would still be nomads, boiling river water to wash down our nightly meal of beans and mush and roots and moss. Getting way too friendly with the livestock. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. From the people who brought you the weekend, not to mention the 40 hour work week and the lunch hour and the smoke break and the potty run and the punch clock dash.

Our society’s love affair with the genetically blessed can get tiresome. The rich and the beautiful and the fast and the strong. The lucky sperm club. People who were in the right place at the right time, and most of those places were wombal. That’s why it’s important to have this one 24- hour period to honor ordinary Americans. Real folks who don’t think “work ethic” is a dirty word. Or a dirty two words. Or whatever.

No, there’s no fireworks to watch or ugly birds to cook or chocolate covered bunnies to steal marshmallows from. Just one Monday off for all those regular guys and gals trying to make ends meet; raising 2.3 kids while juggling a mortgage and trying to cover the monthly cable bill with at least one premium channel thrown in.

One day to celebrate what it is that we do for a living by taking the day off from work. Paying tribute not to some dead presidents or a religious fertility ritual or the valiant who have fallen defending democracy, but to the living. To us. The true American heroes. The ones who keep democracy alive and shaking and moving and growing. You and me. All right. All right. Fine. Mostly you. Happy Labor Day everybody.

About The Author: Will Durst is a San Francisco based political comedian who writes sometimes. This being an example. Catch Durst with Johnny Steele and Deb & Mike, Friday and Saturday, the 10th & 11th at the Town Hall in Lafayette. His new CD, “Raging Moderate,” now available from Stand Up! Records on iTunes and Amazon. Coming early next year: “Where the Rogue Things Go.”



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