Can The United Auto Workers Be Democratized?

Above Photo: Workers picket outside of John Deere Harvester Works facility on October 14, 2021 in East Moline, Illinois. Scott Olson/Getty Images.

For decades, the United Auto Workers has been controlled by a tight-knit group of insiders.

Now members are voting in a historic referendum on how the union elects its central leadership.

For decades, the United Auto Workers (UAW) has been controlled by a tight-knit group of insiders known for its opacity and corrupt tendencies, leading many rank-and-file members to criticize the leadership for its arrogance, lack of accountability, and failure to address the needs of a workforce that is increasingly precarious and alienated. All that might start to change in the coming weeks as UAW members vote on a historic referendum to change the way it elects its central leadership: members can decide whether to replace the current system of indirect elections through a small, exclusive group of delegates, with direct elections, known as “one member, one vote.” That might seem like a pretty basic change, but pro-reform members say that this is the first step toward breaking the monopoly on power held by the current leadership, and could help this storied union become more progressive and address endemic corruption.

To learn more about how the current turmoil among UAW’s top brass could create an opportunity for grassroots change, I talked with Justin Mayhugh of Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), which describes itself as “a grassroots movement of UAW members, active and retired, united in the common goal of creating a more democratic and accountable union.”