Posted March 25, 2023
THE NARROW VICTORY of reform candidate Shawn Fain for UAW President opens the door to a more democratic and militant union. On March 25 the election result was announced by the court-appointed monitor who oversees the UAW. In the still unofficial tally, Fain won 69,494 votes, representing 50.2% of the total cast, versus 69,002 (49.8%) for the Administration Caucus-backed candidate Ray Curry. Although it’s a narrow victory, Fain won in seven of the nine UAW regions.
A key UAWD-organizer, Scott Houldieson — who works at the Chicago Ford Assembly plant as an electrician and has been past vice president of Local 551 — said of the victory: “After over 75 years of one-party rule in the UAW a new reform caucus ousted the Administration Caucus. This unprecedented victory is a reflection of how oppressed and betrayed the membership of the UAW has felt.”
The UAW Bargaining Convention opens in Detroit on March 28. The challenge to prepare a contract campaign for the Big Three auto contracts this fall are formidable. The current contracts covering the “Big Three” corporations – Ford, General Motors and Stellantis – expire September 14. Fain ran as part of the UAW Members United slate on the slogan “No Corruption, No Concessions, No Tiers.” They were backed by the Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) caucus, which was originally formed to change how top officers were elected, moving from a delegate system to one member, one vote.
Negotiations will be tough as these companies transition to electric vehicles. Having staved off production of mass transportation and accelerated production of passenger cars driven by fossil fuels, corporations now preach their transformation is being done for “environmental sustainability.”
For the future of the union, corporation heads suggest, workers should go along with the necessary layoffs while the remaining work force should accept the continued difference in wages and benefits.
Fain begins his administration with a divided union leadership. The International Executive Board (IEB) of 14 is made up of the president, three vice presidents, a secretary-treasurer and nine regional directors. Of those, UAWD-backed candidate Margaret Mock is secretary-treasurer, Mike Booth and Rich Boyer are two of the three vice presidents and four are regional directors: LaShawn English, Region 1; Daniel Vicente, Region 9 and Brandon Mancilla, Region 9A. Dave Green, an independent reformer, was elected director of Region 2B. (Regional directors have weighted votes on the board, depending on their region’s total number of members.)
The other six, however, are part of the Administration Caucus, (AC) which has led the UAW since the late 1940s. Always eager to use their office to ward off possible challengers, the Administration Caucus deteriorated in the face of corporate restructuring in the 1980s. They justified continual concessions, allowed whipsawing of UAW workers in one location against another and became increasingly chummy with CEOs.
More than a dozen of the UAW’s top officers, when discovered, admitted in court to taking kickbacks from the company/vendors or living a high life on UAW funds. This included the then president Gary Jones and a past UAW president, Dennis Williams, both of whom resigned.
For its part, the IEB pledged to work with the newly appointed federal monitor to root out corruption. Then the IEB, whose entire membership belonged to the AC, appointed Rory Gamble to finish out Gary Jones’ term. In 2021 Ray Curry, UAW secretary-treasurer, was appointed to replace Gamble, who retired a year before the end of the term.
Given the dominance of the AC, the overwhelming majority of local officers also joined. If one expected help from the union leadership – whether a grievance settled or a local contract negotiated – local leaders were told joining the caucus and following its directives was necessary.
As a consequence, the AC has an army — particularly the large number of appointed officials — more in the habit of following orders (and keeping their jobs) rather than sticking their necks out to represent the membership. We are mostly told, “You should be glad you have a job.” Since accountability means justifying why the leadership negotiated an inferior contract or can’t organize against deteriorating working conditions, many of the appointed representatives and local leaders are unprepared for the upcoming negotiations.
Since the corruption scandal became public, there have been three national UAW elections. The first changed the voting on top officers from a delegate system that assured the AC control to a system of one member, one vote. The second election resulted in five UAWD-backed candidates winning with the other two advancing to a runoff. The third — the runoff — resulted in Fain winning the UAW presidency and Daniel Vicente becoming Region 9 director.
Unfortunately the percentage of working members and retirees voting never reached 15%. Partly that was due to the leadership’s decision not to publicize the new voting method. They didn’t even campaign to retain the delegate system, but word got around through their appointees. They didn’t run much of a campaign in the first round either. But that changed when five of the UAWD-backed candidates won. In the runoff election AC caucus campaigned particularly in Region 1A where the AC candidate for Vice President, Chuck Browning, had been the regional director.
The Curry Solidarity Team filed a motion March 16th with the federal monitor, raising six issues and calling for the monitor to immediately delay the announcement of a final result until their questions had been answered. Three of the charges were around mail-in balloting as if the leadership, entirely composed of AC members, had not been in charge of member addresses. They also claimed there had not been equal access to leafleting at turnstiles, and that charge is true, but with the shoe on the other foot! Autoworkers in Toledo, leafleting for UAWD-backed candidates, filed NLRB charges against the company for running them out of the parking lot while the very next day allowing the Curry Team to leaflet.
The other two charges — regarding who could contribute to the campaigns and questioning the eligibility of Daniel Vicente, newly elected Regional 9 director — had been settled by the monitor’s office well before the campaigns. In Vicente’s case while he was out on a family medical leave the company failed to send his union dues to the local. He worked with the company and the local to make sure those dues were paid. One wonders why the Curry team filed a motion that the monitor so quickly dismissed. Given that prominent AC leaders campaigned around the charges over the next few days one suspects it was an attempt to cast suspicion on the election process and new leadership.
The counting for the runoff for one vice president, Region 9 director and UAW president began on March 1st and ended on March 4th and were set to resume the following week when over 1600 envelopes would be verified for eligibility and then counted. This enabled Churck Browning to become the third vice president and Daniel Vicente to be Region 9 director. But verification came slowly, in bits and pieces. The first count was on March 16 but another batch was delayed until March 25, when the monitor announced that Shawn Fain won.
For last year’s Constitutional Convention, UAWD delegates worked with others to write several resolutions. One was to increase strike pay and begin it on day #1 rather than the eighth day. For their part, the IEB attempted to take the increase off the table by raising strike funding to $400 a week in advance of the convention. But at the convention, members discussed the importance of beginning the pay when they went out. And a member on strike against Case New Holland introduced a motion to increase strike pay to $500. Both resolutions passed. To show the AC was still in change, their delegates waited until delegates began leaving for home, then voted to reduce the pay back to $400.
Since the five UAWD-backed candidates plus the one independent took office last December, the new IEB decided to take another vote on strike pay. The result: strike pay is back at $500 a week. The presence of reform candidates combined with pressure from the ranks accomplished the task.
The membership voted for change and now have high expectations. Yet the culture that the AC has bred is one where the leadership checks in with the membership at the Bargaining Convention, approves a vague outline of goals, negotiates what they think is possible and then campaigns for a yes vote.
Even when a strike is called, there is little preparation beyond printing vague signs and putting together a list of when to picket at various plant gates. This routinization is deadly. Instead, a campaign for a contract needs to spark the imagination of the membership. It needs to begin with discussion over demands as well as the strategy necessary to achieve them.
Actually the demands have been circulating since the concessions began in the 1980s. As starters there are demands:
* To end tiers, hoops that newer workers must jump through to win equal pay and equal benefits,
* To the return of Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) to working members and expanding it to retirees,
* To be treated with dignity on the job, which means an end to structural racism and sexual harassment whatever one’s perceived gender,
* To the right to safe working conditions.
A contract campaign begins far before negotiations start. They are primarily developed not at the negotiating tables but at the work site where workers signal the coming battle in everyday struggles over production standards. Clearly UAWD members and supporters will be key in discussions, leafleting community members, setting up informational meetings and picket lines, organizing on the job and more. Reform leaders will need to inspire the membership to push aside lazy and irresponsible leaders.
That is, the fight for a decent contract must break through the long-established union culture that views membership as an insurance policy. A successful member-based campaign strategy needs to be a honeycomb of activity. That means “all hands on deck.” Empowering workers can bring forward new leaders to build the coordination necessary. This is our challenge – it’s an enormous responsibility and we have a short window.
Houldieson remarked: “We believe that solidarity unionism based on rank-and-file democracy can be the basis for turning our union around. I am looking forward to starting the next chapter in the storied history of the UAW.”
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