The last time the United Automobile Workers had a truly contested election for union president, the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills was there to celebrate a new force in American life. Progressive ideas and the union-made intellectuals who advanced them, he observed, were coming “in live contact with power.” That was in 1947, when Walter Reuther and his caucus won control of every top office in a million-member union that Reuther, a former socialist, proclaimed “the vanguard in America.”
Seventy-six years later, the UAW is in the midst of its second all-out contest for top union offices. In the first round, which finished in December 2022, an insurgent slate, Members United, surprised everyone by winning outright five of the 14 seats on the union’s powerful executive board—including two vice presidents and the secretary-treasurer. No candidate secured a majority in the contest for the UAW presidency, so a runoff election is now underway among the top two contenders—Shawn Fain of Members United and Ray Curry, the incumbent UAW president—both of whom won about 38 percent.
The insurgent candidate, Fain, joined the UAW in 1994 as an electrician at Chrysler’s Kokomo Casting Plant. After nearly 20 years in the shop, he became a union staffer but also a burr under the leadership’s saddle. He was among those on the UAW bargaining team who urged rank-and-file rejection of contracts that won little or nothing from Fiat-Chrysler. With other reformers, Fain wanted the UAW to elect top officers by vote of the entire membership—a break from the long-standing delegated convention system that insured control by an Administrative Caucus all too adept at doling out favors or punishing dissidents. Curry, an African American who got his start in a North Carolina truck plant, has been on the union executive board for more than a decade. He won board appointment to the union presidency in 2021.
The Administration Caucus was founded three-quarters of a century ago by the newly empowered forces supporting Walter Reuther. At the time, it was a vibrant coalition of militants, ranging from Trotskyists on the left to Catholics corporatists on the right, all ready to take on the big auto corporations. But after 1980 UAW membership plummeted as plant closures, foreign competition, periodic recessions, and the growth of nonunion production in the South sapped the union’s strength. Sometimes, the UAW leadership fought back, authorizing strikes and organizing campaigns, as well as making its voice heard in Washington on trade and regulatory issues.
But an insular Administration Caucus executive board, insulated from dissent or accountability, also agreed to concessionary contracts that facilitated outsourcing, froze wages, and created two-tier employment contracts giving new hires wages far below those of workers already on the job, with inferior insurance and pension benefits. This in turn created an underclass whose very existence threatens to undermine the solidarity and the employment standards so necessary to the maintenance of effective unionism. But when workers rejected such contacts, union leaders often deployed a “vote till you get it right” tactic, putting virtually the same agreement up for ratification until workers took what was on offer.
A corruption scandal in 2014 finally broke the caucus’s power. Federal investigators unearthed embezzlement, bribery, and corporate-paid junkets on the part of top UAW officials. Two former UAW presidents went to prison, along with two officials from Fiat-Chrysler (now Stellantis) and nearly a dozen other UAW leaders. A federal monitor agreed with UAW oppositionists that more-democratic procedures were necessary to restore both honesty and effectiveness to union governance. In a 2021 referendum supervised by the monitor, workers endorsed direct elections to choose all the union’s top officials, thereby setting the stage for the presidential contest now taking place. Mail-in ballots are due by the end of February, with the winner is expected to be announced on March 1.
In the first round, four opposition candidates garnered 62 percent of the vote against Curry. But turnout was low—only about 11 percent of those eligible to vote—and in the current runoff, the old guard has proven itself far more active in defense of its prerogatives and power. With those backing Fain also pulling out all the stops, turnout is sure to surge.
A combination of both cynicism and commitment shapes the union consciousness of most UAW members. Disgust with the well-publicized corruption scandal, plus disdain for a high-handed yet ineffectual leadership, may well account for much disengagement. But alienation from the UAW’s governing apparatus has not eroded the bedrock sense of pro-union sentiment and social solidarity still animating hundreds of thousands of UAW members. In 2013, after Michigan Republicans passed a state “right-to-work” law, few autoworkers quit the union or failed to pay their dues. That sense of union commitment was ratified in 2019 during a six week strike at General Motors, when nearly 50,000 autoworkers held the line despite little guidance or leadership from above. And just two months ago, employees at Ultium Cells, a battery plant operated by General Motors and the South Korean manufacturer LG in Warren, Ohio, voted 710 to 16 to join the UAW. Many of those workers had once been employed at GM’s nearby Lordstown assembly plant, shuttered in 2019.
In the 1940s C. Wright Mills could never have imagined that the “union intellectuals” he saw as essential to labor’s strategic empowerment would be more likely found on a mass picket line than in the UAW research department. But the UAW’s recent and remarkably successful organization of academic workers—who now constitute 20 percent of the membership—has brought new energy to the union, including a determination to end two-tier contracts, restore the cost-of-living adjustments eliminated during the Great Recession, and animate internal union democracy. After a six-week strike at the University of California, 48,000 teaching assistants, postdocs, and researchers won wage increases of more than 50 percent over the life of their new contracts—far beyond anything achieved on the industrial side of the union. Not unexpectedly, other academics and researchers are pouring into the UAW from Boston College, Northeastern, the University of Alaska, and the National Institute of Health. Fain’s slate included Brandon Mancilla, a former grad student unionist from Harvard (Latin American history), just elected to the UAW executive board from Region 9A covering New England and New York City.
If the insurgents win the UAW presidency and take control of the executive board, they’ll have their work cut out for them. To retain any leverage against companies building electric vehicles—which take 30 percent less labor to produce—the UAW will have to organize both the new battery manufacturing facilities of the old Big Three car companies and those of non-union upstarts like Tesla, Rivian, and Lucid. And then there are the Japanese-, Korean-, and German-owned assembly plants, mainly in the South, which for decades have seemed impervious to union organizing efforts.
A tall order, yet there is a new surge of pro-union sentiment sweeping the country—and not just among university teaching assistants and coffee shop baristas. If a new leadership can demonstrate that the UAW is once again the organization that C. Wright Mills hailed in 1947 as “a grass-roots union with ideas,” America’s working-class future may be brighter than it has looked for some time.