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UAW Members Have Voted for Democracy in Their Union

The United Auto Workers is one of America’s most important unions. It has long been hobbled by an autocratic internal culture and widespread corruption. The members’ vote in favor of a direct voting system to elect leadership could change that.

Striking UAW members picket outside of the John Deere Davenport Works facility on October 15 in Davenport, Iowa. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

The members of the United Auto Workers (UWA) appear to have voted overwhelmingly to move to a direct voting system for choosing their union leadership — “one member, one vote.” With all votes counted as of December 2, direct elections had the support of 63.6 percent of voters.

If the result holds, it will be a historic win for reformers in one of the nation’s most important unions, where members have pushed for this change for decades.

The referendum is the product of a consent decree between the UAW and the US Department of Justice, after a years-long series of prosecutions of top union officials on corruption charges ranging from embezzling union funds for personal use to accepting bribes from an employer, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA, formerly Chrysler, now Stellantis), in exchange for accepting contract terms more favorable for the company.

A million members were eligible to vote in the mail-ballot referendum, including four hundred thousand active members and six hundred thousand retirees. Of those, 143,000 returned ballots.

Susan Perry, a former officer of UAW Local 685 who retired after thirty-two years on the job at the Chrysler Transmission Plant in Kokomo, Indiana, was not surprised by the 80 percent vote of support in her local, the first one to be tallied. “I would’ve been shocked if it was any other way,” Perry said. “I just assumed it was a done deal. Because that’s what the members have been trying to get for thirty or forty years.” (The New Directions movement, formed in the mid-1980s by UAW activists frustrated with the union’s concessions and embrace of partnerships with employers, was behind an earlier push for direct elections.)

The second-largest local counted was Local 862, representing fourteen thousand active members and fifty-five hundred retirees at Ford’s Kentucky Truck and Louisville Assembly Plants. It went 81 percent in support of direct elections. Local 862 member Chris Budnick, who is on the steering committee of the reform network Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), credited the years-long push to discipline top union leadership for corrupt practices for the result.

“Local 862 was the first local to press [internal union] charges against [former UAW President] Gary Jones,” Budnick said. (Jones was ultimately convicted of embezzlement in federal court and sentenced to prison.) “We got it approved by the membership to go forward with it. So our local was very actively fighting against the corruption. Now we’re being asked, ‘Do we want one member one vote or do we want to keep the system?’ It was a vote for change.”

Even more surprising, perhaps, was the 69 percent support for direct elections in Local 600, the Ford local in Dearborn, Michigan, which Budnick called “ground zero of the Administration Caucus.” (The Admin Caucus is the one party that has ruled the union for generations.) Rory Gamble, who was UAW president from late 2019 to June of this year, came out of Local 600, as did Bob King, who held the top spot from 2010 to 2014. It’s the union’s largest local, with over twenty-five thousand members and retirees.

Eric Truss, who has contested for local office in Local 600 since 2004 and is a member of the UAWD steering committee, said the local’s culture mirrors the culture that has allowed the Admin Caucus to maintain its tight grip on the international union’s delegate system. “Any time you run for something you’re bullied, you’re pressured. So people don’t speak up. When we were flyering, they were excited but they were silent about their excitement. But now, calls and texts are coming in. Now they’re willing to be excited and talk about it.”

Other large bases of support came from higher education locals, which make up a fifth of the union’s active membership. University of California graduate workers Local 2865 voted 84 percent yes for direct elections, a percentage beaten only by Local 5118, the Harvard Graduate Students Union, which voted a whopping 97 percent yes.

Close behind Harvard was Local 2366, representing about 175 John Deere workers in Coffeyville, Kansas, who voted 95 percent yes. Across nine locals in Kansas, Iowa, and Illinois, Deere workers voted 4,099 to 1,926 (over 68 percent) for one member, one vote.

“The strike no doubt gave us a unique perspective, the referendum ballots going out right on the top of our strike,” said Deere worker Nolan Tabb of Local 281. “[UAW leadership] got a 31 percent increase [in pay] in 2018 that the delegates chose for them, but were essentially pushing the original offer from the company which was a minimal increase for us. So it’s like, how is 3 percent sufficient for us but you got a 31 percent increase?”

Tabb believes elections at the top will mean accountability for leaders who negotiate bad contracts: “The good old boys system has been held in place because they’re not elected spots. Not only do we not have control over who gets put into those positions, but we don’t have control over getting those people out of those positions.”

He said the result “clearly validates the perspective that the rank-and-file members will no longer just keep it ‘business as usual’ — neither with the company perpetuating corporate greed, nor the good old boys system that’s gone unchecked and unaccounted for in our leadership.”

The Campaign(s)

The referendum result is the culmination of two years of organizing against the backdrop of what federal prosecutors have called the largest union corruption scandal ever. In the fall of 2019, after charges were brought against then-president Jones, individual locals began filing resolutions calling for discipline of top officers under Articles 30 and 32 of the UAW constitution. Members then began calling for a special convention, under Article 8, to take up the “one member, one vote” question.

Through those fights to hold their top leaders accountable, the rank-and-file group UAWD was formed. Scott Houldieson of Local 551 in Chicago, one of the founding members, was a leader of the fight to bring Article 32 ethics charges against top leaders. “We’ve been advocating those things for a long time,” he said. “Myself, for better than a decade, but guys like [UAWD steering committee members] Mike Cannon and Bill Parker for the better part of 40, 50 years. Most members are not aware of that history. They just know that they have an opportunity in front of them right now to take back their union, and they’re acting on it.”

These efforts fell short of the thresholds that would have been required to call a special convention, but found new life in the consent decree between the UAW and the Department of Justice.

The agreement to hold a referendum on “one member, one vote” did not guarantee the outcome, however. For that, rank-and-file members had to organize. Very few local officers came out in explicit support of a yes vote, and the Administration Caucus closed ranks, alternately acting as if the referendum didn’t exist — the incumbents refused to inform members about the vote beyond the strictest mandates of the monitor — and then exhorting members to “Protect the Wheel.” (A wheel is the union’s logo.)

The incumbents touted their cooperation with investigators, and exhorted members to stick with the status quo system, where rank-and-file members elect convention delegates (often local officers) who in turn elect the international officers. They warned against smaller locals being drowned out by larger ones, outside “dark money” influencing elections, and low voter participation allowing a small group to decide the union’s future. Members wondered about the flyers opposing direct elections that mysteriously showed up in their break rooms before shifts, though local presidents would deny putting them there.

UAWD, on the other hand, hit the gates in dozens of locals. Active members and retirees flyered, set up text banks and phone banks, and held a week of action in May to commemorate the infamous Battle of the Overpass, the dramatic confrontation between auto workers and company goons in 1937 that paved the way to a union at Ford. UAWD held weekly meetings open to all members, circulated “one member, one vote” pledges, launched a website to spread the word about the referendum, and used social media to reach rank and filers across the country and bring them into the campaign for the right to vote.

What’s Next?

What happens next is far from clear. According to the consent decree:

…the UAW Constitution shall be amended to incorporate [the one member, one vote] principle with respect to its IEB [international executive board] elections prior to the next IEB elections taking place at or following the next UAW Constitutional Convention in June 2022. In such case, the Monitor will promptly confer with the UAW to draft language amending the UAW Constitution affirming the “one member, one vote” principle for inclusion in the UAW Constitution at the next UAW Constitutional Convention.

In addition:

…the Monitor, in consultation with the UAW, shall develop all election rules and methods for the election of members of the IEB during the period of oversight.

Some members are worried about the vagueness of this language and the potential impropriety of the UAW — here meaning the current leadership of the union, which is avowedly against direct elections — conferring with the Monitor on amending constitutional language, and consulting with the Monitor on election rules and methods.

Most members expect some kind of delegate-based nominations threshold, as exists in the Teamsters, where candidates have to win the support of at least 5 percent of convention delegates to get on the ballot. Other possible models are the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, where a “primary” election at the convention determines who makes it onto the general ballot, or the United Steelworkers, where candidates must receive endorsements from a certain number of local unions to reach the ballot, or a membership-wide, petition-based nominations process (which in the Teamsters is a prerequisite for nomination at the convention). Election rules could also allow electronic balloting and limit campaign spending.

One way or another, members expect a showdown at the convention in June 2022, whether over the nomination itself or particularities of how the election is to be conducted, plus any other constitutional changes members would like to pursue. The convention delegate races, which are mostly likely to be held this spring, will be hotly contested.

The referendum opens the door for a contested election for the top leadership of the union — something that hasn’t happened in a very long time. The question is, who will run? Administration Caucus leaders like incumbent president Ray Curry are likely to make their case to members that they remain the most qualified candidates, having occupied all the top bargaining and representational positions in the union for decades. When the Laborers voted to switch to direct elections in the 1990s under a consent decree in the wake of a corruption scandal, members voted, on the same ballot, to reelect their incumbent president.

On the other hand, UAW members could “throw the bums out,” opting for a new leadership backed by the nascent reform group UAWD, as happened in the first direct elections in the Teamsters in 1991, when Teamsters for a Democratic Union–backed reformer Ron Carey took the helm. It will be interesting to see whether any leaders of large locals, who have mostly stayed silent till now, find the courage to speak up for reform and throw their hats into the ring.

Bruce Baumhower, head of Local 12 in Toledo, the union’s third-largest auto local, was one of the few local presidents to come out publicly in support of direct elections. But, as the Toledo Blade reported in November, “Mr. Baumhower said several of the current UAW vice presidents have been helpful to his union. A one member one vote system does not mean the current leadership will be tossed out, he said, but it would immediately allow for more accountability. ‘I just think times have changed,’ he said.”

Ray Jensen, a member of Local 774 at General Motors’ Tonawanda Engine Plant near Buffalo, said his priority will be electing leaders who remember what it’s like to be a working member. “I don’t care what sector they come from,” he said, “as long as they’ve come from the floor, they’ve been in our position, they’ve worked the jobs, they know what it’s like to start at the bottom, not be appointed to a [union staff] position on your second day on the job.”

“I want someone who’s in touch with reality — the wants, the goals, the job. The UAW is fantastic. It’s the leadership that’s given us a black eye,” Jensen said. “I’d like to see someone in there who’s a blue-collar worker, not necessarily a certified public accountant like Gary Jones. Somebody who knows what we need going forward:, to stay healthy, to earn a decent wage and living and decent retirement benefits.”

For UAWD, the reform network that was formed just under two years ago, the fight remains the same — if now on far more favorable terrain. Budnick sees the low turnout as a sign of the organizing work that’s yet to be done.

In his own local, “we’ve got at least 10,000 members more that are active and didn’t vote, and the ballot went to their house,” he said. “That bothers me. And that’s the whole point of one member, one vote for me — the main point, besides having the right to vote, was for member engagement. This is supposed to engage the membership.” As to why that hasn’t happened through the referendum, Budnick blames decades of Admin Caucus rule. “The membership has been complacent, because we didn’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “Every time somebody tried to do something it just got shot down by the Administration Caucus. They’ve just been beaten down into their place, and it kind of sucks.”

That said, tens of thousands of UAW members have just voted to upend the status quo. For Houldieson, the result shows that “members want a choice. They want to have a say in how their international union, that they pay union dues to, is administered.” Where that choice will take the union is now, finally, up to the members to decide.