Posted September 28, 2022
As a retired member of UAW Local 600 and longtime activist, I was present at the 2022 UAW Convention with guest status. Here are my thoughts on the Convention. The points of view in this article are my own, not those of any organization. As a socialist, my goal is both to celebrate the rank-and-file successes at the Convention and to look soberly at their limitations to help determine next steps.
Names used in this article
Administration Caucus (AC). The caucus that has ruled the union since the days of Walter Reuther. Many reformers call the UAW a “one-party state.”
International Executive Board (IEB). The top leadership of the UAW International, including the President, Secretary-Treasurer, three Vice Presidents, and eight Regional Directors.
UAW Constitutional Convention. Meets every four years to take up resolutions and amendments. Separately, the same locally-elected delegates meet as the UAW Bargaining Convention to consider contract demands.
A battle of ideas
Unlike any UAW Convention for decades, the 2022 Convention was a battle of ideas, instead of a scripted bureaucratic pageant. The basis for this more combative Convention lay in the 2021 successful organizing to make International officers directly elected. (See Historic victory for UAW activism.)
At this year’s Convention, the delegates demanding democracy and militancy were led by Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), founded in 2020 to organize for a Special Convention that could have made reforms without government control. That Special Convention process was overtaken by criminal charges against top UAW officials that led to a government-imposed Monitor.
UAWD continues and expands on work by Auto Worker Caravan and other reform efforts, going back to the New Directions Movement born in the 1980s. UAWD has united reformers from newer components of the UAW, such as higher education workers, with traditional auto, agricultural implement, aerospace, parts supplier, and technical, office and professional workers.
A brief chronology
Monday, July 25
There were 877 Constitutional Convention delegates from across the UAW.
UAWD and other reformers fought to change two rules that had made it almost impossible to get a vote on resolutions and amendments not approved by the Administration Caucus (AC). Reformers lost on changing the rules themselves, but this fight led to some success in moving proposals to a vote during the Convention.
UAWD also fought for ranked-choice voting (RCV) in the upcoming direct election of the International Executive Board. RCV would have prevented a run-off extending into the 2023 contract year. The proposal failed, but it placed the onus for any untimely runoff on the AC.
Day One showed the Administration Caucus that they were in a real fight from the floor for the first time in decades. The AC did not fully regroup against the reformers until Day Four.
Reformers succeeded in calling two key proposals out of committee for discussion and vote. They had prioritized 1) banning tiers in contracts, and 2) the right of retired members to run for UAW International office. Multi-tiered categories for new hires have meant lower wages and elimination of pensions. As I tell my daughter to explain why I organize, “My generation sold out yours.” Last fall, UAW John Deere workers made major progress against tiers by rejecting sell-out contract offers and striking.
The AC delegates voted to increase top officer salaries by 3 percent — even after the dreadful UAW leadership corruption scandals and the same officers’ 30 percent raise voted by the last Convention! This year’s raise seemed to fail at first, but the AC made delegates vote again, and it passed.
Reformers lost in a vote to ban tiers in the UAW Constitution, but a good third of the delegates were for it, despite the amendment’s not appearing in the proposals booklet. There was heavy support for banning tiers back home in the locals, and anger when members learned of the result at the Convention. Every delegate who spoke in the discussion said they opposed tiers — but the AC majority still voted against adopting a principle against tiers!
Many UAW locals had supported UAWD’s proposals on strike pay. Delegates voted to start strike pay on day one of a strike — a real victory! And by two-to-one, the delegates approved a rank-and-file initiative from the Convention floor to raise strike pay to $500 per week. Just before the Convention, the International Executive Board (IEB) had announced that it was raising strike pay to $400 per week, but delegates thought that wasn’t enough. The Wednesday vote was another victory — but wait till you read about the backsliding on Thursday!
Delegates also voted to limit IEB campaign contributions to $2000 — another reform — but not till 2026. The AC receives contributions from very well-paid UAW officials who agree with them or are just dependent on them.
Recall that on Wednesday delegates had voted to raise strike pay to $500 per week. The UAW website had already bragged about the $500. But then on Thursday, the AC delegates voted to reverse that back to $400!
Two Trustees were elected by the Convention (unlike the IEB members to be directly elected by members). The pro-reform nominees did not win, but did well. No one could recall the last time there was even a contest for Trustee. It was progress even to have an actual election, rather than just a coronation.
The AC wasted half of Thursday morning, as dozens of their delegate supporters nominated the same candidate over and over — just to prove they had regained control of the Convention at the cost of paralyzing it. This provided the current President, Ray Curry, a bad excuse not to give his speech on the state of the union. Also soaking up time throughout the Convention were on-stage tributes to past UAW leaders (except for past president Bob King).
Also cutting into precious time were the usual Democratic Party politicians who don’t understand the UAW’s problems, let alone mean to help the workers. The Convention was adjourned on Thursday afternoon.
The bureaucrats’ methods vs. the reformers’ methods
“This cult that has invaded our union,” is what one AC delegate called the reformers during the Convention, a succinct expression of the AC’s aversion to democratic competition between visions and proposals.
The leadership broke its promise to distribute to delegates a report of the total amount stolen in members’ dues. In a step backward that guarantees future problems, the Regional Directors will now appoint the Membership Advisory Committee on Ethics. The previous method, a random draw among members who volunteered, provided a way for rank-and-file members independent of the bureaucracy to get on the committee. Regional Directors were at the heart of the corruption problem.
UAWD wrote daily reports and mass-distributed them to delegates, the only real-time written orientation for all delegates. The UAWD reports took up issues including solidarity with Mexican unions against the same bosses U.S. workers face. The preparation of these reports and other communication during the Convention relied heavily on the talents of UAWD staff, members, and supporters.
Sustainable change won’t come from the IEB down, but from the bottom up, from shop-floor activists taking power in the locals. But right now, the IEB election offers a chance to activate members UAW-wide. A good campaign would provide momentum for future local elections.
Political high and low points of the Convention
After the Convention, I asked myself what the political high and low points of the Convention were from my perspective as a union activist and a socialist.
The low point did not “stand out” at the Convention as much as it was smuggled in, behind delegates’ backs. Organizing the Unorganized was swallowed into an omnibus resolution that evaded UAWD’s and other Convention delegates’ concrete proposals. The UAWD resolutions are here.
The biggest political error of the Convention was the AC resolution’s reliance on electing capitalist politicians to deal with organizing electric vehicles and batteries (EV) workers. The UAW has never been able to build bottom-up organizing drives in auto plants in the South. As a result, it as failed to organize the non-Big Three parts plants and the German, Japanese and now Korean transplants. The AC resolution continues the pattern of wringing hands and hoping for pro-labor legislation that hasn’t come in the 75 years since Taft-Hartley and has no prospect of coming in the remainder of the Biden administration.
This problem stands like a guillotine over the future of the UAW. The AC ended the Convention with no effective strategy to guarantee, for example, that the new Ford EV and battery plants in Kentucky and Tennessee will be UAW-represented. Organizing these plants will require a political fight that the UAW is not any more ready for today than it was at Volkswagen and elsewhere in southern auto plants.
Were any political issues at all dealt with at the Convention? Like all reformers, I celebrate the victories on strike pay, even the temporary one, and the votes to bring issues to the floor, even when UAWD’s proposals were voted down. But I mean political issues in the sense of something controversial on the national political stage.
For me, the political high point of opposition to the AC was a reform delegate’s speech on reproductive rights. She forcefully pointed out that although the AC-backed resolution on reproductive rights implies support for abortion rights, the AC ducks the controversy by omitting the word “abortion.” I felt this as the clearest breakthrough in demanding a change in the way the UAW leadership deals with political issues. UAWD’s position on reproductive rights is here.
Why do I emphasize taking on national political issues? If the UAW reform movement takes on all that it aspires to — such as ending tiers, including the restoration of new-hire pensions — workers will collide with both national political parties. Imagine a 2023 contract strike taking out all of the Big 3. No lesser strike could restore new-hire pensions.
What would Joe Biden’s administration and the Democratic National Committee — let alone Republicans — say about such a strike’s effect on the 2024 national elections? Lack of union independence from capitalist political parties imposes a severe limit on what any union can achieve.
Ron Lare is a retired member of UAW Local 600 and a member of Solidarity. See also Dianne Feeley’s Report on the 2022 UAW Convention, Wendy Thompson’s More on the UAW Convention, and the Labor Notes article Auto Workers Turn a Corner for Strike Pay and Democracy by Keith Brower Brown and Jane Slaughter.