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Democratizing the UAW

Justin Mayhugh

The United Auto Workers has devolved into a stagnant, often corrupt union. It’s in desperate need of a democratic rejuvenation.

United Automobile Workers (UAW) union members picket at the General Motors Flint Assembly plant during their national strike against General Motors on October 23, 2019 in Flint, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

Interview by
Chris Brooks

The degeneration of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) is a labor-movement tragedy. Once renowned for being militant, progressive, and squeaky-clean, the union today has been exposed as a corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy.

Three Fiat Chrysler executives and eight union officials have been charged with crimes as a result of a multiyear federal investigation into corruption in the auto industry. For over a decade, millions of dollars were funneled by the company into the hands of union officials to grease the wheels for company demands at the bargaining table. According to one Fiat Chrysler official, the goal was to keep UAW leaders “fat, dumb, and happy.”

Not content with the payoff from employers, former UAW presidents Dennis Williams and Gary Jones have both also been accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars in union dues to finance their bottomless appetite for spending weeks on end, and sometimes months, living in gated luxury California villas where they played hundreds of rounds of golf, smoked cigars, ate steak dinners, and drank high-end liquor.

Under threat of being brought up on charges that could lead to his expulsion from the union, Jones recently resigned his membership and has been replaced by Rory Gamble, another top union officer.

At the heart of the corruption scandal is the union’s Administration Caucus. Founded by Walter Reuther seventy years ago, every union president and almost every International Executive Board representative since then has been a member. The Administration Caucus operates as an authoritarian “one-party state,” showering those who are loyal to the caucus with patronage positions and perks, and demonizing and using dirty tricks to drive out any who oppose.

And for the past forty years, the Administration Caucus has devolved more and more into an arm of the employers. Beginning in the early 1980s, the UAW leadership abandoned the traditional trade-union understanding that capital and labor have inherently adversarial interests for a new religion: labor-management partnership, or “jointness” in Administration Caucus parlance.

The union would now work with the Big Three to increase productivity so they could grow their market share and fend off the encroachment of nonunion foreign automakers. This, of course, didn’t work. Instead, as productivity increased, jobs were cut, the union became weaker, and autoworkers were forced to accept more concessions for the sake of keeping their employer competitive.

Hoping to turn the tide against corruption and concessions and build on the energy of the recent forty-day strike by forty-six thousand GM workers, a national network of autoworkers are organizing to take back their union and reignite the UAW’s fighting spirit. Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) is a new rank-and-file caucus being organized to challenge the Administration Caucus and bring democracy to the UAW.

To learn more about the caucus, the corruption scandal rocking the union, and the recent strike against General Motors, Labor Notes staff writer Chris Brooks spoke with Justin Mayhugh, an activist in UAW Local 31 at GM’s Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City and a founding member of UAWD.


CB

When did you start working at Fairfax? What is it like working there?

JM

I started working at GM Fairfax Assembly in 2011 as a flex worker, which means I only worked on Mondays and Fridays. I did that for a year before I got hired on permanently in April 2012. I work in the trim department, where I install a bunch of random little things on the car, like seat belts.

One of the hardest parts of working on an assembly line is the physical toll it takes on your body. Carpal tunnel, shoulder problems, knee pain — if you work on the assembly line long enough, you’ll end up with significant pain and injuries. It’s part of the reason why I believe so many autoworkers struggle with either alcohol or opioid addiction. It’s a way to numb the physical pain for some workers.

And in many plants, workers are forced to work ridiculous schedules: ten to twelve-hour days, six or sometimes even seven days a week. The international seems to have little interest in addressing the long hours we work, which is just another way for the companies to get around hiring more workers and instead wring as much productivity out of as few workers as possible.

I came into the UAW not knowing anything about it. When I got to work at GM Fairfax I started seeing how the company ran roughshod over everyone. I started thinking: things couldn’t have always been this way. The union couldn’t have always been this weak, or how did we ever win pensions and health care in the first place?

So I started researching the history of the UAW. The typical history of the UAW is all about Walter Reuther. He’s held up as a union savior. But then I started to talk to old-timers, and they started to give me the real history. I learned about the New Directions Movement, Jerry Tucker, the fight against concessions and jointness. I realized there was a whole other hidden history to the union and a tradition of rank-and-file democracy that I wanted to be part of. I have great respect for those workers who came before who were willing to sacrifice so much in order to build a better future for the rest of us. That is what keeps me going.

I tell people, I hate my job, but I love the UAW.

CB

What do you think the company got in exchange for keeping UAW officials “fat, dumb, and happy?”

JM

The companies have gotten extremely favorable contracts. Just look at all the plant closings. They just got away with closing three plants despite our forty-day strike: Lordstown Assembly in Ohio, Warren Powertrain in Michigan, and Baltimore Powertrain in Maryland.

And then there is the rise of temps and outsourced jobs and all the tiers. We’ve given out numerous concessions over the years, and the companies are making a killing. GM made $35 billion in profits over the past three years alone.

Also, it is not uncommon for many plants to not even get local contracts, because once the international negotiates the national agreement, they appear to show very little concern for the locals.

Local agreements include issues such as break times, work schedules, worker responsibilities, layoff and rehiring procedures, safety issues, etc.

If you look at the situation at Fairfax, the national contract has already been agreed to. That puts our local shop chairman in a very precarious situation, because now he doesn’t have the backing of the rest of the locals. He will essentially be forced to give up concessions in order to come to a local agreement and to secure future product for the plant. If he is unwilling to give up concessions, it is likely that our plant will either go down to one shift or close.

Not having local agreements finished before the national agreement leaves locals out on islands all by themselves. They have to fend for themselves, which is obviously a huge disadvantage when you’re up against a huge corporation like General Motors.

Without local-to-local solidarity demanding that no locals will give up concessions, the weakest locals in regards to products are screwed. We saw that with Lordstown.

Coming to a national agreement before local contracts allows the corporations to whipsaw one plant against another in order to extract concessions in exchange for future products. This practice actually goes against our UAW Constitution (Article 19, Section 6), yet the international leadership has allowed the corporations to run roughshod over these workers in this manner for years.

In the past, the international would not allow the corporations to pit one plant against another in order to extract concessions.

CB

And then there is the downward pressure from management to be constantly improving productivity on the job. What does that look like?

JM

GMS stands for global manufacturing system. It’s basically a set of criteria for all GM plants to run under so they can maximize profits. GMS depends on what is called “continuous improvement,” which means workers are required to find “innovative” ways to constantly be increasing productivity. Ultimately, it’s about cutting jobs and running a skeleton crew to make the remaining workers do more and more of the work. So under GMS, which the union supports, it’s actually part of my job responsibilities to help the company save money on labor costs by finding new ways to cut jobs.

Even when we have contract language protecting work rules, in my experience it hasn’t mattered. The company just does whatever they want, and the union leadership goes along with it. Or they will agree to a new memorandum of understanding with the company, like when UAW vice president Cindy Estrada agreed in the middle of the 2015 contract to outsource material jobs at Lordstown and Orion. She said it was necessary to save the jobs at Lordstown by keeping the plant competitive. Not surprisingly, that didn’t work. It never does.

CB

What are your reflections on the recent strike?

JM

The international sent GM workers out on a strike in an attempt to reestablish some of their credibility, to make themselves look like they were willing to fight the companies on behalf of the membership.

Just look at the contract. What exactly did we go on a six-week strike for? To drop the Lordstown lawsuit against GM? To allow the company to continue exploiting temporary workers for years at a time? So future hires will take eight years to reach top pay? So that all hires after 2007 will continue to have a 401(k) rather than a pension and no retiree health care? All the inequalities between workers are still there.

And once the pattern was set with starved-out GM workers, Ford and Chrysler workers had little leverage to actually fight for better terms of their contract.

CB

So the purpose of the strike was to roll the steam out of the workers?

JM

I believe so. The contract we ended up agreeing to would never have passed if we hadn’t been starved out for six weeks.

CB

Many strikers talked about the importance of forcing GM to address the issue of temps, who work the same jobs as everyone else but without job security and with significantly reduced pay and job security against plant closures. How much movement was there on these issues due to the strike?

JM

We actually didn’t have any specifics prior to going out on strike. The international was pretty vague, as usual. So we had nothing to base our opinions on except for what would “leak” out to the media. For example, GM wanted UAW workers to start paying 15 percent of their health insurance costs instead of the 3 percent it is now, which we did beat back.

Correspondence from the international to the membership was pretty vague. Our list of “demands” while on strike were very broad as well. “Our fair share of profits” can be interpreted in a lot of different ways from one person to the next.

In regards to temporary workers, I don’t believe much headway has been made. The contractual language says that any temporary worker with three years of continuous service will be hired in 2020 and those with two or more years of continuous service will be hired on permanently beginning in 2021. But what stops the company from laying these workers off before they reach the three or two-year threshold? And those that become permanent after 2021 are still on the eight-year progression to top pay.

Given [GM CEO and chair] Mary Barra’s insistence on continually cutting down the workforce numbers at the company, how many new workers will GM even hire during this contract? It’s pretty clear that all new hires will be temps. So the UAW has effectively substituted our ninety-day probationary period for new hires with a new process where they have to spend years as a temp and hope they aren’t laid off for more than thirty days at a time, otherwise they lose their “continuous service” to the company and the clock starts over.

I have little faith in our leadership’s ability to provide job security. I actually came across the 1987 Ford UAW highlights packet about a week ago, and sure enough, the IUAW boasted about how they had achieved job security in that agreement and how the language on plant closings was a lot more strict than in previous agreements.

As we all know, that agreement did not provide job security and neither has any subsequent UAW contract with the Detroit Three.

CB

What is UAWD, and why should autoworkers get involved?

JM

Unite All Workers for Democracy is a movement of UAW activists who believe the only way the union can survive and be successful is by returning back to the militant roots of the union’s early years — before Walter Reuther consolidated power during the late 1940s in the form of the Administration Caucus and before many of the great organizers were purged from the union and before the leadership became overly bureaucratic and intentionally isolated itself away from the membership.

UAWD believes that the union should have a bottom-up power structure where the rank and file are educated and involved in dictating the direction of the union.

Our fellow UAW brothers and sisters should become involved with UAWD if they are tired of losing and tired of continual concessions. Or if they are tired of the corruption, favoritism, and nepotism running rampant among many of our leaders. Workers should know that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are still plenty of us within the UAW who still believe in actual union principles.

CB

And what is UAWD focused on now?

JM

We will be unveiling a website in the near future. The website will have a lot of useful union information as well as a way to get in contact with us if someone is interested in joining UAWD.

At the moment, UAWD’s top priority is pushing for a Special Convention via Article 8, Section 4 of the UAW constitution.

Article 8 allows members to trigger a Special Convention if a minimum number of locals and members pass resolutions supporting one. We have written a resolution calling for a convention to amend the UAW constitution by mandating that all of the International Executive Board members be elected by direct vote of the members, rather than the current delegate system. And we have an organizing kit online that we are sharing with activists who are interested in taking up the resolution in their own locals. Already we’ve had six locals representing more than ten thousand workers pass the resolution.

Thanks to the organizing of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the government forced the Teamsters to adopt a “one member, one vote” election system for top officers as a mechanism for addressing corruption. Other major unions also have a one member, one vote system, such as the Steelworkers and Machinists. So this isn’t an outlandish demand.

CB

Why is union democracy so important to the fight against concessions and corruption?

JM

I think all one has to do is take a look at the current state of the Administration Caucus as a perfect example of what happens when a union becomes undemocratic and leaders become self-serving.

I know the federal investigation is specifically targeting the 2015 negotiations, but the decline of the international leadership — and thus, the UAW as a whole — has been ongoing for decades now.

When leaders are not held accountable for their actions, when members blindly trust those leaders without question, when a union of thousands of working-class people is controlled by a very small number of corporate-minded suits who are living a whole lot better than those they represent, then, to me, the corruption shouldn’t really be too much of a surprise.

The truth is that the majority of our leaders at the international have no skin in the game in regards to what happens in these assembly plants or with the parts suppliers. It’s why they don’t care to fight the twelve-hour workdays or the six-day workweeks. Or why they agree to continually help the corporations extract more and more profits at the expense of their own membership. It’s why they agreed to drop the Lordstown lawsuit against GM once the 2019 contract was ratified.

When a union starts believing in corporate ideology, then that particular union is in a lot of trouble. When leaders of that union tell their members they must compete with one another in a never-ending, concession-filled race to the bottom, what is the point in calling yourself a union?

The rank and file must be active in the decision-making and direction of their union. Union democracy is a vital step in transforming the UAW and returning it to the militant force it used to be.