Eyes will be on the upcoming election of the United Auto Workers in an unprecedented referendum. The results could be game-changing for how the UAW will operate in the future. It could also have a ripple effect throughout organized labor. There's some poetic justice that the elections open on October 19, the day UAW rebel organizer Jerry Tucker succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2012.
For years, workers and union supporters have criticized unions for operating like corporate entities (stealing all they can) and elected union leaders like corrupt politicians (suppressing democracy). Some have even likened the tactics of the UAW hierarchy to that of the Mafia. With about $1 billion in assets, greedy union officials had deep pockets at their disposal for personal pleasures. Finally, the situation has reached a flashpoint in the union family.
The upcoming referendum is part of a consent decree by the Department of Justice which conducted a multi-year investigation into the UAW corruption scandal. Top union officials have been convicted and former UAW Presidents Dennis Williams and Gary Jones received prison time for their criminal roles.
Top union officials have indulged in lavish getaways in the millions of dollars while workers toiled on assembly lines.
The election will give its nearly one million members (including retirees) the opportunity to vote directly for their top officers. You’re probably thinking, “Haven’t they been doing that already?” Nope.
The concept of the Administrative Caucus was conceived under the regime of UAW President Walter Reuther as he consolidated power decades ago. This began a slippery slope down the mountain into the swamp. Reuther rooted out most of the radicals and left-wing militants who would've challenged his relationships with strange bedfellows. The Caucus operated as an internal party with the political clout to determine who gets to run for the union offices. When delegates voted for their executive officers at its conventions, it may have looked like democracy in action but it was a mere rubber stamp of the top-heavy, power-grabbing bureaucracy. The rank-and-file members are looking to break the stranglehold of the one-party reign in the continuing efforrs to democratize their union.
Union workers knew about the UAW’s corruption and collusion with corporate management long before their dirty laundry was aired by the Department of Justice.
In the face of negotiated contracts that continued to favor management’s unabated labor-busting strategy, Jerry Tucker and others engaged in their own strategy of stealth organizing inside the plants. They went on to launch the New Directions Movement, an opposition caucus inside the UAW that advocated for better representation along with more democracy, transparency and accountability.
All of the latter was sorely lacking in the 1980s which was a particularly tough time for union workers. The U.S. experienced a deep recession. There was a dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs. President Ronald Reagan come into office crushing PATCO, the air traffic controller's union, who dared to strike for righteous demands. The UAW and other unions adopted the "team concept" that opened the doors for cozy relationships with management under the guise of being equal negotiating partners. Since then, unions have steadily lost genuine bargaining power and actual members.
Top union officials have indulged in lavish getaways in the millions of dollars while workers toiled on assembly lines. Equally as disgusting, they have taken bribes from auto companies, totally compromising their ability to boldly represent their members. Members have complained about jacked-up contracts for years, especially the two-tiered system. Members have been forced to accept more concessions with fewer benefits. During COVID-19, workers felt like they were trapped in unsafe conditions which unnecessarily exposed them to the deadly coronavirus. During the 2019 strike, workers received paltry strike payments as union bosses were living large. Union members are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
When Bill Fletcher wrote about the twenty union myths almost a decade ago, I often used it as a source to squash attacks on unions by misinformed people. They’re Bankrupting Us! dispels disinformation about unions from someone who is not a hater. Bill is a former union member, a labor organizer and a staunch advocate of unions. With Myth #20, "Unions are Corrupt and Mobbed Up!" he admits unions are vulnerable to corruption like any organization when there are no financial controls and levels of accountability. He was clear-eyed that too often union officials treat the treasury "as his or her personal bank." This is an understatement when one takes a deep dive into the UAW's state of affairs.
I'm also a former union member and a staunch advocate of unions. The despicable actions of union leaders don't inspire optimism about the future of the labor movement. My hope lies with the rank-and-file workers although the challenges to turning the UAW around are daunting.
Their tasks are to restore trust both inside the union and in communities, to set up strong and effective financial controls and to draw neon lines of demarcation between union and corporate management. Building a bold and democratic union that makes workers' interests the top priority will be their top priority.