United Auto Workers union members across the United States are currently voting on a referendum that will shape the future of the union. The referendum, mandated by a federal consent decree, will decide whether the president and all international executive board members will be elected by direct vote of the members, or whether the current system of only allowing UAW convention delegates to vote for the leadership will remain in effect.
The federal consent decree mandating the referendum on ‘one member, one vote’ was a product of a five-year federal investigation into corruption within the UAW leadership. The investigation led to 15 international executive board members being prosecuted for corrupt practices, and 12 being convicted, including past UAW Presidents Gary Jones and Dennis Williams.
The corruption that permeated the UAW leadership can be directly traced to the retreat from a class struggle approach by the union leadership which accelerated due to the massive restructuring of the auto industry beginning in 1979. At that time, rather than challenge the corporations’ plant closings by asserting that the workers have a property right to their jobs, the UAW leadership adopted the line that the only way to preserve jobs was for the union to cooperate with management as a joint partner.
In practice, what union-management cooperation meant was concessionary contracts and the adoption of two- and three-tiered wage packages relegating new hires to lower wages with no pensions. It also meant creating “joint” management-union ventures of all kinds, which in practice became vehicles for management to corrupt a sector of the union with perks that drew them farther and farther away from the rank-and-file members.
Which way forward?
The referendum on reshaping the selection of the UAW leadership comes at a critical time for the union. The UAW has successfully organized tens of thousands of workers in the academic sector. However, the coming shift to electric vehicle production in the United States threatens the loss of tens of thousands of UAW jobs in its industrial auto base.
Electric vehicles require about 30% less labor for their assembly than internal combustion vehicles, due to fewer parts to install. In addition, while most of the component parts for current vehicle production at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) are produced with UAW labor, the batteries and components required for electric vehicles are to be produced by “joint ventures.”
Ford recently announced the investment of $11 billion in two “mega” electric vehicle manufacturing sites in Tennessee and Kentucky as a joint venture with SK Innovation, a Korean corporation. General Motors is building two battery plants, in Springhill, Tenn., and Lordstown, Ohio, on the site of a former UAW represented assembly plant, with LG Chem.
Because these new facilities are joint ventures, they are considered entirely new entities under U.S. labor law, meaning they will not bring the union with them. The members will have to be organized to join the union. Both GM and Ford have not even agreed to “card check” recognition, where, if a majority of workers sign cards indicating they want to join the union, an election can be avoided.
Tennessee and Kentucky are both so-called “right to work” states, with only 4.6% of the workforce and 7.5% of the workforce unionized, respectively. This compares with 15.2% of the workforce being unionized in Michigan where both GM and Ford are headquartered.
The referendum on ‘one member, one vote’ can be an important step in the revival of the union. While it’s success would not automatically resolve all the problems the union is grappling with, it could create more favorable conditions to do so. Direct elections can help foster improved member engagement and participation in the internal life of the union, firmer bargaining positions, a greater focus on new organizing initiatives, and more.
Currently there are signs of a revival of union struggle occurring across the country. For this struggle to move forward and stop the continued elimination of auto workers’ and other industrial jobs, it will necessitate the rank-and-file embracing militant tactics and demands that directly challenge the capitalist owners.
It is time to revive the concept that workers have a property right to their jobs and the right to seize the factories and offices when the bosses threaten to shut them down. It is time to revive the demand for a shorter work week, 30 hours work for 40 hours pay, so workers can once and for all enjoy the benefits of technology, rather than having the bosses use it as a weapon against them. All these issues were raised by socialists and communists in the UAW before they were stifled by the current Administration Caucus that has controlled the union for the past 70 years.
The UAW was the leader in reviving the union movement in the 1930s with the sit-down strike in Flint, Mich., inspiring similar militant actions that led to great victories for labor across the United States. The fight for union democracy must expand to one for union militancy against the bosses, one with the potential to revive the union movement in a winning direction during this current period of intensified labor struggles.
Feature photo: Strikers and supporters on the UAW picket line at the GM Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly Plant, September 2019. Credit: Kris Hamel