In voting results announced on December 2, members of the United Auto Workers overwhelmingly voted to change the union’s method of choosing its top leadership, a decision which could lead to profound changes throughout the union. During mail-in balloting which took place from late October to late November, members voted 63.7% to 36.3% in support of direct election of the Union President and International Executive Board by the union membership. Until now, union leaders were chosen by delegates to the union’s convention.
The referendum election was mandated by a federal consent decree after a five-year investigation by federal prosecutors found corruption and embezzlement by members of UAW’s top leadership as well as automotive executives. Among the fifteen people prosecuted for corrupt practices are six elected UAW leaders including two past UAW Presidents, five UAW staff members, and three Fiat Chrysler executives.
The consent decree was part of a settlement with federal prosecutors to avoid criminal charges against the union. In addition to requiring that UAW members vote on whether to change the voting method, the deal also requires a court-appointed monitor at union expense. The monitor, former federal prosecutor Neil Barofsky, will continue to audit and investigate the union for at least the next six years, but will not be involved in contract bargaining. While interference of the capitalist government in internal union affairs must always be opposed, the settlement came under the threat of federal prosecution, which would likely have been much more damaging to the UAW.
Voter turnout in the referendum was relatively low — about 14% of union members participated — but the strong vote in favor of direct elections cut across the vast majority of UAW local unions across the country. Without a doubt, the vote indicates that UAW members are ready for significant reforms to ensure accountability and transparency, and a future of solidarity and fightback.
Reform efforts in the UAW go back several decades as many members saw a lack of internal democracy as linked to union leadership accepting the union-management cooperation demanded by the auto companies starting in the late 1970s. Major concessions to the employers supposedly to save jobs failed to reverse a cascade of plant closures across the United States, while the union was unable to organize the increasing number of workers in U.S. plants run by foreign-owned auto manufacturers including Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen and others. A new internal caucus focused on union reform, Unite All Workers for Democracy, organized phonebanks and leafleting in support of the referendum and sees the vote as the first step in returning the union to its fighting roots.
This vote, as well as recent UAW strikes at GM, John Deere and elsewhere, point to UAW members’ willingness to step up the fight against the boss, and the next period will be pivotal. In 2022, the union’s convention will formally amend the UAW constitution to change the voting method and a new election will be held for top leadership, and then contracts at all three Detroit automakers will be renegotiated in 2023. These developments occur at the same time that the auto industry is in the process of shifting to electric vehicle production, which requires fewer workers, and only a small number of EV plants are currently unionized.
The ongoing fighting outlook of workers based on the irreconcilable nature of labor and capital will be critical to win union victories in the next several years and beyond.
Feature photo: United Auto Workers contingent at a 2014 climate march. Credit — Thomas Good (Wikimedia Commons)