Only Democracy Can Save One of America’s Greatest Unions

Only Democracy Can Save One of America’s Greatest Unions

Only Democracy Can Save One of America’s Greatest Unions

We need strong unions more than ever, which means giving UAW members a real say in how their union is run.


Last month was Striketober. Fueled by historic labor shortages, 100,000 workers either went on strike or prepared to strike, in some of the largest coordinated labor actions in recent US history. This is encouraging. With gridlock in Congress holding up a social safety net bill, the United States needs strong unions more than ever. The trends are very clear: When unions are weak, the highest incomes go even higher, but when unions are strong, middle and lower incomes go up.

But it’s not just about individual labor actions. We also need union leadership committed to fighting for their union members. And, sadly, this is not always the case. What happens with the United Auto Workers, emerging from one of the largest union corruption scandals in history, may be illustrative. On October 19, 2021, ballots—which are due back on November 29—were mailed to almost a million retired and current UAW members in the largest and most significant vote in the organization’s history. At stake is whether UAW members themselves will elect leadership to the International Executive Board—the 13-member highest governing board of the UAW—a process known as “one member, one vote” or the direct voting system. (Currently, the union’s Executive Board leadership is selected by elected convention delegates from each UAW local.)

The referendum is the outcome of a consent decree agreed between the US Department of Justice and the UAW following the Department of Justice’s investigation and prosecution of the union and much of its senior leadership. Members of the UAW’s top leadership—including the union’s former presidents Gary Jones and Dennis Williams, two vice presidents and seven other senior UAW officials and staff—pleaded guilty to a pattern of embezzlement, racketeering, bribery, and kickbacks over 10 years. Over a million dollars of union members’ money was spent on luxuries such as villas in Palm Springs, cigars and golf clubs. This money was used to reward loyalists within the union—often the same individuals who were responsible for selecting the top leadership as well. UAW leadership also betrayed union members in contract negotiations by accepting over $3.5 million in bribes from Fiat-Chrysler executives to corrupt the bargaining process and make salary and benefit concessions at the expense of union workers.

One of the top 10 largest US unions, the UAW was historically made up of autoworkers at Big Three auto companies and has expanded to include tens of thousands of other manufacturing, gaming, hospital, graduate student, and legal services workers (such as myself, a public defender). The current system of indirect leadership selection ratified by convention delegates has been described as a one-party state, with the top union brass, known as the Administration Caucus, putting forward a slate of candidates who, with only rare exception, won. The UAW has rarely had significantly contested elections. And because the vote was not secret, if a convention delegate voted against an Administrative Caucus candidate, that delegate’s local union could face consequences. There are many allegations, from former and current UAW members, of union leadership using threats and rewards to cajole support from the leaders of local unions and, worse, punishing those union locals whose convention delegates voted against the Administrative Caucus’s chosen leadership.

Direct election of union leadership is uncommon in American labor organizations, and opportunities to change from a delegate-based system even more so. The Teamsters, prosecuted by DOJ for racketeering, entered into a consent decree in 1989 that required direct elections of union leadership (along with a 25-year government monitorship of union internal affairs). At that time, three of the five past Teamsters presidents had been jailed and hundreds of the union’s officials convicted of crimes. Just as the Teamsters are still identified with Jimmy Hoffa, who led the union in the period of its most dramatic growth, the UAW’s early years were largely defined by its commanding longtime president Walter Reuther, who helmed the union from 1946 to 1970. Reuther was a key organizer in the sit-down strikes in 1936 and 1937 that paralyzed General Motors and Ford and resulted in the UAW’s formal recognition by the automakers. Reuther was a one-time radical who in the 1930s campaigned for the Socialist Party and went to Europe with his brother Victor to learn about union organizing. But, as biographer Nelson Lichtenstein observed, Reuther became gradually more accommodating to corporate interests over decades of union leadership. The term “Administration Caucus” reflects his unparalleled influence as president of the UAW—it was, in fact, the “Reuther Administration Caucus.” When union leadership faced pressures and threats—for example, in 1959 when a caucus of Black union members organized to demand a Black member on the Executive Board—Reuther responded by closing ranks. Vetting a potential Black candidate for the Executive Board, Reuther personally demanded absolute loyalty to the Administration Caucus from all of the individuals whom he interviewed to fill the spot.

Reuther’s tenure came to an end only with his death in 1970, and the relationship between UAW leadership and the needs of its rank and file became further attenuated. When the American auto industry faced increased foreign competition in the 1970s and 1980s, UAW leadership responded by partnering with management to make concessions on behalf of workers. When Chrysler faced bankruptcy in 1979, then–UAW President Douglas Fraser agreed to lower wages for workers and gave Chrysler permission to cut tens of thousands of union jobs, concessions that totaled $1.1 billion in worker wages and benefits. But concessions only begat more concessions, with profitable manufacturers also demanding and receiving wage and benefit rollbacks. Taking issue with this approach, the Canadian wing of the UAW seceded from the union in 1984. Walter Reuther’s brother Victor, who held senior positions in the union until 1972, bitterly criticized the Administration Caucus in 1985 for negotiating the UAW’s contract with General Motors, for the new line of Saturn vehicles, in secret. This concessionary posture generated mistrust between UAW negotiators and union members.

UAW union negotiators can do better. John Deere workers, who are members of UAW, began striking on October 14, 2021, after 90 percent of the union membership rejected the collective bargaining agreement achieved by union negotiators. With an agreement reached on October 31, they achieved significant gains over the first contract that they rejected, including a 10 percent overall wage hike and preserving the company’s pension system for new hires. (Deere workers apparently believe they can do better still—they rejected this agreement on November 2.)

As illustrated by the Fiat-Chrysler bribes, the UAW’s method of selecting union leadership created inadequate accountability structures: Union leadership (whose reelection was all but reassured) faced no consequences for its close relationship with management. What is to be done? The direct election of union leadership through secret ballot. Democratically and fairly elected, these leaders will set the tone for the UAW in its negotiations and achieve better results for workers.

Joe Biden came into office promising to be the most pro-union president in US history. But his administration issued an ambivalent statement regarding the John Deere strike and has ignored the UAW referendum. Worse, the Department of Justice, responsible for prosecuting the UAW in the first place and setting in place the referendum, has been tepid on union democracy. On October 8, 2021, the Department of Justice and the UAW (still controlled by the Administrative Caucus) jointly moved to alter the consent decree so that UAW employees could engage in advocacy regarding the referendum. Since the union brass, of, course does not support “one member, one vote,” having union employees engaging in advocacy would mean using union funds to advocate for continued control by the Administration Caucus. The federal judge refused to alter the consent decree, but this action by the DOJ was very disappointing.

It was August 2019 when the Department of Justice’s investigation of the UAW was made public. I’m a member of ALAA Local 2325, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, and I’m a public defender. When I first heard about the DOJ investigation, I thought the charges must have been trumped up because they were issued by a politically motivated (and anti-union) Trump Department of Justice. Unfortunately, I was wrong. It’s an unhappy feeling to realize that your money—your union dues deducted every paycheck—had been misappropriated. To create a better UAW, members must directly elect the union’s highest leadership. No doubt we can make better decisions than those of the UAW’s past leadership. To empower workers, we must strengthen unions—and at the same time give members a real say in how their unions are run.

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