Above photo: The Auto Workers struck General Motors in 2019. A referendum on direct elections of top officers creates an opening for new leadership and new strategy in a union that has accepted wave after wave of concessions during seven decades of one-party rule. Jim West/jimwestphoto.com.
In December the leadership of the United Auto Workers reached a settlement with the Justice Department that opens the door to election of top union officers by referendum vote of the membership. That might well end more than 70 years of one-party control and help democratize a union once known for animated internal debate and competitive leadership contests.
The settlement provides for six years of oversight by a court-appointed monitor with extensive powers, including the authority to veto new UAW staff hires and block candidates for office who do not meet an anti-corruption standard.
More important, the agreement calls for a vote of all 400,000 members to decide whether they want direct election of top leaders, or to continue with the current system whereby delegates choose the national leadership at each constitutional convention, held every four years.
According to the timetable in the court order, the referendum, overseen by the monitor, should take place by September 2021. If members vote for direct election of officers, another union-wide vote to select them would take place in 2022.
Lack of democracy at the core
The deal ends a sweeping federal investigation that uncovered embezzlement, bribery, and cover-ups by 11 high-ranking union officials, including two former presidents, Dennis Williams and Gary Jones. Together, these officials embezzled more than $1.5 million in dues money and took $3.5 million in illegal payments from executives of Fiat Chrysler, who sought to corruptly influence contract talks.
U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who led the investigation, argued that lack of democracy has been at the core of the UAW’s problems. His anti-fraud complaint demonstrated that insularity and self-dealing on the union executive board created an environment where corruption could flourish. Thus, a small group on that board chose Jones to succeed Williams, even as both were complicit in the growing corruption scandal.
Although Schneider was a Trump appointee, his commitment to a referendum vote in the UAW was influenced by a new reform network of UAW members, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), which had already been working to build support for one-member-one-vote. In early 2020 their effort to call a special convention to do just that fell short, with 26 locals representing 60,000 UAW members in support, below the 80,000 needed.
The UAW has been a one-party regime for many decades because the union convention, which elects all the top national officers, has been tightly controlled by an “Administration Caucus,” which routinely wins an overwhelming proportion of the delegate vote.
Actual decisions as to who will be nominated to lead the union are made by the 13-member international executive board—all of them members of the caucus. Sharp conflicts do take place on that body. In 1970 Leonard Woodcock defeated Douglas Fraser by just one vote, and in 1982 Owen Bieber secured the top slot after nearly a year of internal conflict.
But once the executive board chooses a slate, top union officials close ranks. “Teamwork in the leadership, solidarity in the ranks” was a slogan the UAW deployed to confront the auto corporations during union’s post-World War II heyday. But today that idea has come to stand for near autocratic control.
The Administration Caucus wields a variety of levers that create loyalty among the thousand-plus convention delegates: the promise of a staff job, support in a local election, or conversely, criticism and marginalization from above. The eight UAW regional directors, also chosen at convention, are the key disciplinarians. They keep close tabs on signs of discontent among the locals and can recommend appointment to or dismissal from staff jobs.
The UAW under this regime has been plagued not only with corruption but also, perhaps more profoundly, with a culture of collaboration with employers. Wages and benefits declined as the union accepted concessions and a multi-tier workforce, allowed locals to be pitted against one another, and largely failed to organize the growing nonunion share of U.S. auto production.
A union-wide ballot would enable all UAW members to vote directly for the president and other top officers, which is also the way officials in the Teamsters, Machinists, Laborers, Postal Workers (APWU), and Steelworkers are chosen.
The Teamsters adopted that system in a 1989 legal settlement designed to root out wrongdoing and racketeering; the one-member-one-vote system was championed then by the reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), along with oversight by a government-appointed election supervisor.
Before then, Teamster conventions had been little more than coronation ceremonies for a close-knit group of increasingly corrupt officials. Union-wide elections created a much more participatory organization.
In the 1990s a Teamster reform slate led by Ron Carey held office for five years. Thereafter an old guard headed by James P. Hoffa has led the union, but it has been continuously challenged by TDU and other reform forces. As a consequence, says TDU organizer Ken Paff, Hoffa and his allies have had to “police themselves,” helping keep out at least some of the most corrupt and self-serving officials.
Union-wide elections serve to energize the rank and file. In 2016 the TDU-backed Teamsters United slate won 49 percent of the vote, electing six vice presidents to the executive board and winning top leadership posts in two big regions covering Southern and Midwestern states.
In the NewsGuild, part of the Communications Workers, Jon Schleuss, a 32-year old reporter at the Los Angeles Times, used a 2019 national ballot of Guild members to oust Bernie Lunzer, a three-term incumbent twice his age.
A notable feature of the contest was an actual debate—unusual in the union movement—moderated by retired CWA President Larry Cohen. It took place in the form of a conference call, with members submitting text and email questions before and during.
Direct elections no panacea
Referendum election of top officers is not a panacea, however. Democracy in union affairs requires organizing a group or caucus with a clear program, broad appeal, and articulate leaders.
During the first dozen years of its existence, the UAW was one of the nation’s most democratic and progressive unions. Two factions, one a Communist-backed coalition, the other led by Walter Reuther, vied for leadership, not just on the executive board but also in almost all locals and regions. Debate took place on every conceivable topic: bargaining strategy, strike tactics, race relations, foreign policy, and political action, inside the Democratic Party or to its left.
The union’s annual convention proved an exciting venue for argument, coalition-building, and education of the membership. Reuther, who would become the union’s legendary president in the postwar years, would park himself at the entrance to the convention bookstall to talk and debate delegates for hours at a time.
When the entire convention heard leaders of each caucus argue key issues and then vote on rival resolutions, the national press corps put the results on the front pages of leading newspapers the very next day.
All this ended when the Reuther caucus won all the top leadership posts in 1947. Thereafter, opponents were kept off the executive board or coopted onto the staff. A “flower fund,” to which all staff and officers had to contribute, helped sustain Reuther caucus control. (It still exists, providing an illegal slush fund for some of the UAW officials enmeshed in the recent corruption scandal). Conventions became less frequent and internal debate declined.
An instructive contrast
The history of the United Steelworkers (USW) offers an instructive contrast. When John L. Lewis and Philip Murray created the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in the mid-1930s, it was a tightly-controlled institution in which all officers and organizers were appointed from the top. Murray transformed it into the USW in 1942 and instituted union-wide elections.
This was not designed to democratize the organization, however, but rather to ensure that UAW-style factionalism would not break out at either the union convention or in the districts and locals. Since the leadership monopolized communications with the rank and file and chose most of the staff, their power seemed secure.
But from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s a series of union-wide election contests erupted in the USW, with challengers winning upwards of 40 percent of all votes, and perhaps a majority in basic steel locals.
The most progressive was that of Ed Sadlowski in 1977, which sought to turn the USW toward a more militant posture in bargaining and political action. But because his defeat coincided with the onset of widespread mill closings and layoffs, the Sadlowski campaign also marked the end of union-wide challenges to USW leadership.
Thereafter collective bargaining in steel was far more decentralized and the union became more heterogeneous, so the basis for a union-wide opposition diminished. And USW leaders generally avoided the kind of money scandals that plagued the UAW, the Teamsters, and the Laborers.
Work cut out for them
Reformers in the UAW have their work cut out for them. They must organize for two elections: the referendum to determine whether the union will move to a union-wide vote, and then the election of top officers themselves. Meanwhile, UAW President Rory Gamble has promised to “educate” the membership on the “issues” with a union-wide vote, and the Administration Caucus will likely put its formidable political machinery into action to lobby hard against direct elections.
Those obstacles can be overcome, however, if UAW members and local leaders come to understand that democratic control of their organization is essential to building a larger and more potent union. To this end the UAWD aspires to transform the UAW “back into the militant union that launched the Flint sit-down, championed civil rights, and took on the most powerful companies in the world.”
Nelson Lichtenstein is the author of State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, as well as a biography of Walter Reuther.