United Auto Workers Appear to Rebuke Leaders in First Vote by Members

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The first United Auto Workers election open to all members appears to have produced a wave of opposition to the established leadership, signaling the prospect of sweeping changes for a union tarnished by a series of corruption scandals.

As the count neared completion on Friday, the current president, Ray Curry, was in a close contest with an insurgent challenger, Shawn Fain, with each getting slightly under 40 percent. The remaining votes were scattered among three dark-horse candidates.

If those results are confirmed by a court-appointed monitor overseeing the count, Mr. Fain and Mr. Curry will head for a runoff election in January.

“If these results hold, it can only be seen as shocking,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, who has followed the U.A.W. for more than three decades. “It’s a major upset for the incumbent administration. The union is entering a new and profoundly different era.”

In an interview as the results were tallied, Mr. Fain said he believed the vote reflected a desire for broad change, citing not only the corruption scandals but also an inability to win broad wage and benefits improvements over the last decade as the three Detroit automakers rang up significant profits.

“I think it definitely shows the pulse of the membership and the pure fact that they’re fed up,” said Mr. Fain, an electrician who has been a member of the union for almost three decades. “I think the members want to get this union back in line and see the election as their shot.”

A union spokeswoman said Mr. Curry would make a statement on the election after the results were certified.

The strength of outsider candidates aligned with Mr. Fain was seen in voting for several other national and regional positions. In a two-way race for secretary-treasurer, the union’s second most powerful post, an ally of Mr. Fain had more than 60 percent of the vote.

In addition to the union’s 400,000 active members, 600,000 retired members were eligible to vote in the leadership election, though not to seek office. About 106,000 ballots were cast.

Since its founding in 1935, the U.A.W. had used a system in which its president and other senior officials were chosen by delegates to a convention, with results often shaped by favors and favoritism rather then the views of the rank and file.

This year’s “one person, one vote” election was one of the measures that the union had agreed to as part of a settlement of a federal investigation that uncovered widespread corruption at the top of the organization. A dozen senior officials, including two former U.A.W. presidents, were convicted of embezzling more than $1 million in union funds for luxury travel and other lavish personal expenses.

Last year, a court appointed a monitor to ensure that the union followed through on anticorruption reforms.

Mr. Curry, 57, a former assembly-line worker from North Carolina who holds a master’s degree in business, was named president in 2021 with the task of instituting those changes after years of scandals tarnished the union’s image. He has held senior positions in the union for a decade, and many U.A.W. members see him as the candidate of the establishment.

Mr. Fain, 54, and his slate are backed by a dissident group, Unite All Workers for Democracy. He has called for a wholesale turnover in the union’s leadership and a more confrontational approach to negotiating with manufacturers.

The election comes at a critical time for the union. The U.A.W. is working to organize several battery plants that the three Detroit automakers have built or are building with partners — factories not automatically covered by its contracts with the manufacturers. Workers at one, a General Motors plant in Ohio that opened last summer, are scheduled to vote on U.A.W. representation on Wednesday and Thursday.

G.M. is building two other battery plants in Tennessee and Michigan. Ford Motor is building two in Kentucky and one in Tennessee. Stellantis, which was formed through the merger of Fiat Chrysler and the French automaker Peugeot, intends to build a battery plant in Indiana.

Next year, the U.A.W. is set to negotiate new labor agreements with the three automakers, and challengers to Mr. Curry campaigned on promises of taking a more confrontational stance. Members have demanded a resumption of cost-of-living wage adjustments, once a key element of U.A.W. contracts, which had been forgone in recent years when inflation was mild and the automakers were struggling to survive.

Members also want an end to two-tier wage and benefit packages. Workers hired in 2007 or earlier have a standard wage of $32 an hour and are guaranteed pensions. Workers hired after 2007 start at lower wages and can work up to the top wage over five years. They also get a 401(k) retirement account instead of a lifelong pension.

In the last decade, the automakers have rebounded strongly and now earn substantial profits. In the first three quarters of this year, G.M. generated $8 billion in net income. Ford and Stellantis earned less but still posted solid profits.

Decades ago, the U.A.W. wielded immense political power, and at its peak represented more than 1.5 million workers. It lost clout as the Detroit automakers scaled back in the face of rising competition from foreign-owned competitors like Toyota and Honda. Despite attempts, it has not been able to organize workers at any of the foreign-owned auto-assembly plants that have sprung up across the South and the Midwest.

Around 2014, the union became the focus of an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Detroit. The inquiry revealed that top officials had embezzled membership dues and money set aside for training centers and used it for expensive cigars, wines, liquor, golf clubs, apparel and luxury travel.

More than a dozen U.A.W. officials pleaded guilty. Gary Jones, a former president, served nine months of a 28-month sentence before being released from federal prison this year. Mr. Jones’s predecessor, Dennis Williams, was released after serving nine months of a 21-month sentence.

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