Most US unions do not choose their international officers through a direct election. The list is short: the Teamsters (IBT), Steelworkers (USW), Machinists (IAM), Laborers (LIUNA), and Longshore workers (only the west coast-based ILWU). The UAW now joins that list. Pursuant to the 2021 Consent decree between the US government and the UAW, a membership referendum was held on the question of whether the union should move to direct election of international officers and move away from the current system of delegate elections. The membership voted overwhelmingly, 63 percent to 37 percent, in favor of changing to the “one member one vote” method of direct election of international union officers.
Accordingly, on January 31, 2022, federal district judge David M. Lawson filed an order granting a joint motion made by the government, the monitor, and the union that the court endorse the results of the referendum vote and direct the union to proceed with implementing the change. The order states that “the amendment of the UAW constitution and all associated proceedings necessary to implement the change must be fully implemented by June 30, 2022.”
As the depths of the corruption that plagued some of the leadership of the United Auto Workers came to light, a narrative had come to be accepted by many in the mainstream media and even in the Labor press regarding the union and its troubles. The narrative speaks of the death of industrial unionism in the United States, taking with it the formerly powerful and democratic stalwart of post war labor-management relations, the UAW. Once a great behemoth of American Labor, the union has been scuttled by both changes in the economy from without and corruption from within.
In the last two years, however, a group of rank and file UAW members organized a caucus known as Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), pushing back against that narrative, hoping to both rescue their union from obsolescence and make it more democratic, as well.
Contra the wishes of many rank and file UAW members, the Administration Caucus of the UAW has governed the union for more than seventy years and throughout that time has tried to cultivate an image of the union as being more or less democratic and responsive to its membership’s concerns. This image has been particularly tarnished by the conviction of several UAW leaders in the federal government’s investigation into the union, but to many members it was always more self-aggrandizing gloss than reality. In fact, rank and file caucuses have tried, at various times in the history of the UAW, to defy the Administration Caucus and reform the union.Though many of these movements were able to rattle a few cages and even inspire some reform within the UAW, the Administration Caucus has remained in power and stable for much of its rule, enduring the whips and scorns of deindustrialization, plant closures, and dissidence among the membership. It appears that paradigm has shifted in the last two years, however, as the UAW became the target of Federal probe into corruption in the union, culminating in more than a dozen convictions for embezzlement, money laundering, wire fraud, tax evasion, etc. and the imposition of a six year consent decree with the Department of Justice.
In the midst of this scandal, the UAWD jumped into the fray, hoping both to make the union more democratic/responsive to the concerns of the membership and to root out corruption among the leadership, in their words to make 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.”
One of the main goals of the UAWD was amending the union constitution to allow “one member one vote” in electing leadership at both the local and international level, contra the current system of electing delegates who then elect leaders. The delegate system had allowed the same caucus to, in effect, dominate the ruling apparatus of the UAW. Scott Houldieson, president of the UAWD told The Guardian;
“The corruption scandal is just a symptom of the UAW’s one-party state. We’re hoping that with direct elections, we can break up the one-party state and have checks and balances to not only prevent future corruption, but to get back to our relationship of fighting for the betterment of our members, rather than collaborating with the companies. I think that when members have the ability to directly elect the top leaders who represent them, it’s going to make a big difference.”
The reform caucus was able, just prior to the major COVID 19 lockdowns in March of 2020, to collect endorsements for such a change from over 60,000 members and 25 locals. A major achievement in and of itself, this organizing was vindicated not by internal mechanisms within the union triggering an amendment in the UAW constitution, but by the federal government’s intervention. In the wake of findings and convictions during the course of its corruption probe, the Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit against the UAW “seeking equitable relief to bring about reform and oversight of the union”. U.S. District Judge David Lawson placed a six year consent decree on the union and appointed former Federal prosecutor Neil Barofsky as an independent monitor, charged with the duty to investigate corruption and promote internal reform to that end. Also included in the consent decree was an order that the UAW hold a membership wide referendum on amending the union constitution to allow “one member one vote” in electing leadership.
Many UAWD activists and organizers were critical of the DOJ’s decision not to simply require “one member, one vote” from the outset and chafed at what they perceived as a private agreement between the government and the top officers of the union, leaving the membership without a seat at the table. As such, the reform caucus filed a brief in February 2021 seeking relief in the form of direct elections and membership voice in the selection of the monitors (internal and external) supervising union affairs in the UAW. The UAWD feared that unless the membership was immediately enfranchised in this way, the union leadership would continue to intimidate the rank and file into accepting the current delegate system and the “independent” monitors will be beholden to the union leadership and the government first and foremost and not to the membership. AUD filed an amicus brief supporting the caucus motion. but it was denied by the Judge in late April.
Yet, some UAW members were cautiously optimistic about the possibility said referendum would pass and thus allow for direct elections. Ken Larew, a member of UAW local 1853 from Tennessee told the Detroit News;
“We need to show the public we the members are doing everything we can to right the ship…What I don’t want to see is the public looking on, especially now, and saying, ‘The people that work there don’t care. They’re just sitting back; they’re going to let more corruption take place and let the government takeover and do their dirty work for them and clean house. We need to make a strong push now that we, the members of the union, are not going to stand for this. The only way to correct it is to make those leaders directly accountable to the people on the floor.”
It turns out Larew and others’ hard work and faith in the membership was justified.