USA: Push for reformers in Auto Union leadership election
Once the flagship of the American labor movement, now an authoritarian and corrupt organization, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union federation has just elected new union leadership committed to reform.
Votes are still being counted (including for the presidency), but reformers can take leadership positions in the alliance. A victory for reformers in this election opens up the possibility of fundamental progressive change in one of the largest industrial unions, which also represents many workers in the country’s higher education institutions. But reformers will face major challenges from the old union leadership, employers and the government.
A long history of alliance
In the 1930s, through factory occupations, mass pickets, and skirmishes and battles with the police, left-leaning unions succeeded in organizing workers at the three major automakers: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, as well as at many parts suppliers. By the 1940s, as factories turned to war production, the UAW had more than a million members. Walter Reuther, the union’s president from 1940 to 1970, was a social democrat who supported the black civil rights movement and Latino farm workers, but he also created a highly centralized caucus (leadership group) that dominated the union for 70 years.
The Union has experienced several crises. In the 1960s, when black workers demanded change from both the auto companies and the unions, the latter sent white workers to physically attack black workers’ demonstrations. In the 1970s, militant labor unions, some of whom were Vietnam War veterans, led armed strikes against GM. Later, in the 1980s, in the face of competition from Germany and Japan, US automakers began closing some of their old plants while demanding and winning concessions from the union on wages and benefits. In response, local activists created “Locals Against Concessions”. In the 1980s and 1990s, companies adopted what was called Toyota but better defined as “lean manufacturing” or “stress management.” The UAW partnered with business to create many affiliate programs that quickly overshadowed the union.
Crises in the UAW
In the 21st century, UAW leadership has become thoroughly corrupt, embezzling over a million dollars from the union for lavish travel and extravagant personal expenses. Several UAW officials, including two former presidents, pleaded guilty and were sentenced to one to six years in prison. Seeing the need for reform, workers formed All Workers Unite for Democracy (UAWD).
In the context of the crisis, the courts intervened in the union and proposed reforms, with members voting to end the practice of electing leaders at national union congresses in 2021, thereby allowing members to directly vote for top management positions. Reformers then formed a list called UAW Members United, which demanded “no bribery, concessions and tiers” (tiers refer to different pay rates for different groups of workers doing the same job).
However, the UAW of today is not the UAW of yesterday. As auto plants closed, the UAW lost members, and the union began to expand into other sectors, such as education. Today’s UAW is therefore no longer just an industrial union. In total, the union has 391,000 active members and 580,000 retired members who vote in union elections. But more than a quarter of active members are now university-educated workers.
Reformers won several positions in the leadership elections that just took place. But only 106,000 members voted out of nearly one million active and retired workers. So while new leadership is in place, it has not been brought to power by a broad militant labor revolt or a strong reform movement in the workplace (45,000 graduate workers are currently on strike in California, but their regional union did not support the reformers. ).
Many of the reformers have experience at the local level, but they have never led a national union and now face great challenges. It will be difficult. They will need the solidarity of the left.