Historic victory for UAW activism

Ron Lare

Posted January 25, 2022

UAWD supporters leafleting at the Ford Rouge plant, UAW Local 600

A Short Guide to UAW Acronyms and Terminology

AC: The Administration Caucus, the ruling caucus UAW-wide, on the IEB, at the Regional Director level, and in most locals.

AWC: Auto Worker Caravan, autoworkercaravan.net, founded in 2008 to protest financial-crisis era concessions and make climate-related demands.

CAC: Convention Appeals Committee: powers similar to those of the Public Review Board (PRB) but less often used by members.

IEB: UAW International Executive Board, the top leadership including UAW President. The UAW’s official site is uaw.org.

Monitor: The UAW Monitor, Neil Barofsky, uawmonitor.com, was appointed by federal authorities to oversee the UAW for six years, especially regarding financial corruption and some democratic reforms.

NDM: New Directions Movement: A UAW-wide movement developed in the mid-1980s and the best-known UAW reform movement prior to UAWD. Nationally known leaders included Victor Reuther, Jerry Tucker, Suman Bohm, Pat Patterson, and Dave Yettaw. Wendy Thompson and other members were well-known elected local leaders.

PRB: UAW Public Review Board, prbuaw.org, established by the UAW to review members’ challenges of various kinds.

TDU: Teamsters for a Democratic Union, tdu.org, the organization leading reform of the Teamsters union. The most successful union reform organization in the US and a model for many others.

UAW Convention: UAW-wide Constitutional Convention, now held every four years to decide constitutional matters. Unless otherwise specified, UAW Convention means the Constitutional Convention rather than the separate Bargaining Convention. The same delegates serve at both Conventions.

UAWD: Unite All Workers for Democracy, uawd.org, leads the reform movement in the UAW.

On December 2, 2021, the federally-appointed UAW Monitor completed the count of ballots in the 2021 Referendum vote and unofficial results were posted pending only formalities.

UAW members had voted by 63.7 percent to switch from International Convention selection of the International Executive Board (IEB) to direct election by the membership. Direct election or “One Member, One Vote” (1m1v) is a demand of the reform movement within the UAW, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD).

The campaign built on the historic UAW reform movement. This included the New Directions Movement against concessions and for union democracy beginning in the 1980s. UAWD allied with Auto Worker Caravan (AWC), another reform group.

Reformers have appealed to the UAW’s Convention Appeals Committee and more often the UAW’s Public Review Board (PRB) without seeing real change. For details, see Internal UAW Appeals – Members’ Practice Manual and the PRB’s searchable website.

UAWD continued with internal efforts under an early slogan, “Member Control, Not Government Control.” UAWD invoked the procedure for a Special Convention to pass reforms. Locals representing tens of thousands supported this, before the petitioners ran out of time. Meanwhile, news broke of UAW financial scandals.

One scandal that stood out was this. Chrysler-FCA (now-Stellantis) had purchased favorable contract terms from union officers. The UAW assured members that this and other abuses were exceptions. But as past UAW President Bob King told the New York Times, “It’s not about a few bad apples.”

Of course, the most serious corruption has been sellout contracts in line with neoliberal U.S. politics, regardless of cash and gifts for officers. But given the direct payoffs to union officials, activists saw a new opening to convince their coworkers to fight.

A federally-appointed Monitor forced the Administration Caucus (the UAW’s hegemonic political machine) to agree to the recent referendum on direct election (the Administration Caucus is referred to as the “AC” in this article). The Monitor is to oversee the UAW for six years. A court denied UAWD’s attempt to become a party to the agreement, but the Monitor consults with UAWD.

UAWD built rank-and-file support and hired staff with contributions that cannot come from any employer. With staff, UAWD was able to send out tens of thousands of postcards and emails. Activists handed workers tens of thousands of leaflets — sometimes re-done as referendum rules changed. To help with expenses, please donate to UAWD here.

The campaign is covered by Labor Notes, including Auto Workers Win Direct Democracy in Referendum by Jonah Furman.

Path gets steeper

In what follows, I am speaking only for myself as a socialist, not for UAWD or any of its members.

The referendum result makes the Administration Caucus (AC) look weak, a false impression. A national referendum on direct elections requires one set of skills. Electing Convention delegates requires another. At the July 2022 Convention, reformers may need some 50 delegates to nominate for IEB positions (the Teamsters require 5 percent of delegates to nominate). It has been decades since UAW reformers elected 50 delegates.

Many members are unaware of Convention delegate elections, so many seats have gone uncontested, and thus only AC candidates get “elected.”

The AC remains skilled at winning local elections. Even in the referendum, a third of voters supported the AC’s tardy and spotty campaign called “Protect the Wheel” (a reference to the UAW’s logo).

UAWD must now build on the referendum victory to inspire delegate candidacies, help lead campaigns, establish challengers at vote counts, appeal suspect results, and make Convention plans.

More democracy and fightback

Direct election in itself does not mean reform. Direct election exists already in the locals and has not reformed them.

However, more democratic selection of top officers could mean a more militant UAW against concessions, corruption, and tiers. Members might be inspired by national issues campaigns that UAWD can now force candidates to engage in. That could mean a new tone for local elections, contract campaigns and strike preparations.

Members could fight for a Cost-of-Living Allowance (COLA) and other benefits. They could, like the John Deere strikers, defend new hires’ pensions. By contrast, for the “Big 3” auto companies, the UAW gave up such new-hire benefits without a fight!

In the recent vote, my own 30,000-member Local 600 surprised the AC in what has long been its fortress. We outdid the overall Region 1A vote that itself outran the national percentage for direct election. Some other UAW-Ford locals did even better than 600, including 551 in Chicago and 862 in Kentucky. UAW academic locals did exceptionally well.

The Local 600 reform team is led by Eric Truss, an African American General Council delegate widely interviewed in the media. A woman member of the team, Judy Wraight, is a former Unit Executive Board member and the reformer best known local-wide.

However, Local 600 illustrates what we now face. The Local 600 AC controls the delegated, local-wide General Council and the Executive Board. No candidates challenge the president or other Local-wide, full-time officers. Reformers rarely win even among the 50-odd Local 600 Units.

Again, the reform movement could change such situations, local by local. This could lead to reforms ranging from posting grievance lists all the way to climate-related demands and renewing the UAW demand of “30 for 40” — 30 hours work for 40 hours pay, to create more jobs without loss in pay. Within my memory, “30 for 40” was posted on a huge banner in front of big UAW Local 900.

Member control could use the strike fund as a real tool, not just a bank account to manage and divert from its original purpose. No longer could the tail wag the dog and pretend to be the head.

The Administration Caucus campaign

I will summarize components of the AC’s arguments, because we need to win over those who voted for them, and because some AC arguments are supported on the left.

1. Bureaucratic self-interest

Surely thousands of elected and appointed reps voted against changing the rules. Some are corrupt. Others are timid. Appointed reps are completely dependent on top officers. Elected reps write grievances that higher-ups can quash. All grievances are weakened because strikes very rarely happen unless forced by rebels, as at Volvo Truck and John Deere. We aim to win over good reps.

2. Strike threat (against the membership)

UAW members know that some of UAWD’s and their own goals would require striking. This makes many members cautious.

At contract ratifications, the AC says that if you vote No, you’ll be on strike. By this, the AC means unprepared strikes, badly led by the AC. This intimidation carried over to the referendum. Some members voted for what seemed “safe.”

Such resistance can be overcome through strike preparation. Strikes in 2019 at GM and 2021 at Volvo Truck and John Deere helped build militant momentum. However, they lacked contract campaigns, strike preparation, and demands inspiring more member and public support. On the GM pickets, DSA and Solidarity members carried well-received signs reading “Everyone Tier One.” Negotiators never made that demand.

Yet the Deere workers proved that striking, even in spite of the AC’s poor negotiations, can save what the UAW gave up without a fight at Ford, Chrysler/Stellantis and GM: new hire pensions and more. The Deere strike linked the campaign for union democracy to needs of the entire working class, including those not yet hired. UAWD raised $160,000 for the Deere strikers.

3. The devil you know

The AC argued that workers know their local delegates to Conventions, but not national election candidates. UAWD had answers: Members also don’t know the IEB members selected at Conventions; the AC controls delegates with carrots and sticks; and a national election forces candidates to campaign on issues lacking in local delegate elections. Locals often send only their sitting officers, as elections are posted but uncontested. 225 locals sent no delegates to the last Convention!

4. UAW tradition

Some argued that the early UAW would have used direct elections if they were more democratic than Conventions. This appeal to history is not valid. In 1937, Genora Johnson called out women of Flint to smash GM plant windows to release tear gas choking workers inside (watch the documentary, “With Babies and Banners”). The caucus that supported convicted ex-presidents Jones and Williams — and hasn’t struck national Ford since 1976 — has no claim on such history.

5. Not the government

Some argued that the rank and file, not the government, should reform the UAW. We’ve seen above that UAWD tried to reform the union internally. It made no sense to boycott the referendum that most activists have called for over decades.

6. Outside money

A common argument was that national elections are so expensive that “outside money” will control them. The AC’s own corruption meant that members did not pay much attention to this argument. In any event, money on the “inside” also distorts. AC members are required to make big contributions to AC election campaigns.

6. African American officers

The AC argued that only the Convention system will keep officers of color, especially African American officers, on the IEB. This argument was made in a meeting with a UAWD supporter present. Others overheard it on the shop floor. However, check the racial composition of the AC team that debated an integrated UAWD team in a webcast available on Facebook and YouTube. A diverse movement leadership is emerging.

Still, white activists like myself must consistently demonstrate UAWD’s anti-racism.

The same goes for women’s representation, though the AC’s record there is poor. The reform movement also should speak out more for LGBTQ+ rights (which the AC mentions in resolutions but seldom beyond those).

My main answer to all these arguments is that a shakeup is necessary for the union’s survival and to turn it from a servicing to an organizing model. New hires might stop joining a union that gives up new-hire pensions and retiree healthcare. To organize the unorganized, we need victories to point to.

The charge of “outside influences”

There are outside influences hostile to the union movement. However, the UAW needs more, not less progressive influence.

The greatest democratization in UAW history came from the outside in — from the Civil Rights Movement in streets and neighborhoods. Outside struggles won the effective right of Black, Latinx and women UAW members to run for and hold office.

The argument against “outside influence” is used against immigrants and to red-bait socialists. But without socialists, there would be no UAW. Banning “outside influences” would undermine fights to get the UAW to stand against climate change, for affirmative action in skilled trades, and many other progressive stances.

UAWD supports allies outside the US, like the Mexican SINTTIA union that fights attacks by government, companies, and yellow unions.

In 2020, Black workers at the Lima, Ohio Ford plant literally brought change in from the outside — with a Juneteenth rally just outside the plant. They built on the Black Lives Matter movement. As a result, racist HR reps were replaced, union officers became more attentive to Black workers’ demands, and Trump supporters were set back. You can read what the workers themselves wrote about the fight here.

Limits on union reform without political change

The UAW leadership has moved away from its social-democratic reputation and the anti-protectionism of Victor Reuther’s International Department. The union now backs the mixture of protectionism and neoliberalism imposed by the Democratic and Republican parties. The Democratic Party and the union bureaucracy respond to Trump with “Buy American” nationalism, fighting fire with gasoline.

A majority of white UAW auto workers may have voted for Trump out of fear of outsourcing, automation and plant closings. The only effective response would include winning advanced demands through strikes, which the UAW officers don’t want to lead, since this would require challenging the Democrats and ignoring anti-strike laws.

None of the leading figures in the Democratic Party publicly supports UAWD or other union reform caucuses. It’s one thing to say you support union democracy and strong unions in general. It’s another to openly support alternative, militant leadership now, even if it costs a Democrat official union support.

How can the union reform movement solve the problem represented by Democratic Party neoliberalism and rank-and-file support for Republicans, including Trump? That will take a new party based on unions and other organizations of the oppressed.

We’ve made a big step forward in winning the UAW referendum. To build the union reform movement is to build toward militant, democratic independence for the unions.


One response to “Historic victory for UAW activism”

  1. Rhonda Laur Avatar
    Rhonda Laur

    Excellent article. Lare covers arguments that are often used by the bureaucracy in my union, UFCW 876. I especially appreciate the depth of the article. Keep on…