What can we learn from the new militancy in the United Auto Workers (UAW)?
One lesson is that member power does not have to start from a supermajority; that’s unlikely. UAW members are on strike today, with inspiring levels of rank-and-file energy, because four years ago a small group of activists founded a new reform caucus. That caucus, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), boldly took advantage of an unexpected opportunity, organized like crazy, won elections, and went on to lead the union. Their international president consistently hammers home the message that the UAW’s fight this fall is a fight for the whole working class.
If UAWD had not existed and organized hard, this current fight that has so much potential to change the stakes for the entire labor movement would not be happening. At the top, the UAW would still be a pretty bad business union, intent on negotiating a cheap contract (perhaps with a BS strike), and members would be in the dark.
When the Justice Department began investigating the UAW for corruption, a few longtime activists saw the opening. In 2019, they founded UAWD and began a campaign — which seemed quixotic at the time — to change the UAW’s constitution so that members could vote directly for top officers. Since the union’s founding in the 1930s, convention delegates had chosen the officers. From the 1940s until this year conventions were tightly managed by the aptly named Administration Caucus, founded by Walter Reuther. The process for amending the constitution is byzantine, but in a short time UAWD was approaching its goal of getting the required fifteen locals representing 79,000 members on board to call a special convention. Then COVID-19 hit, canceling local union meetings and closing plants.
UAWD rebounded, though, and was soon making its views known to the Justice Department: the way to clear out corruption was to let the members vote. This was the same tack taken by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) in the 1980s, when their union was under investigation. TDU rejected the idea of a federal takeover, as many in government had advocated, and said instead: let the members decide. The feds authorized a rank-and-file vote, Ron Carey was elected president with TDU’s support, and he went on to lead a stunningly popular and successful strike in 1997.
Eventually the Justice Department’s monitor said he would let UAW members decide whether they wanted to decide. In fall 2021, they voted whether to keep the old convention system or switch to one-member-one-vote. Turnout was light — only 14 percent of the 400,000 members and 600,000 retirees, indicating both the high degree of member cynicism and the sorry state of the union’s address book — but the direct elections option won with 63.6 percent.
The Administration Caucus, which at that point still ran the union, tried to pretend the vote was not happening, but UAWD campaigned hard, with members building contact lists, distributing leaflets, phonebanking, talking with coworkers and the media, getting pledges signed, doing social media, and holding online events. They got UAWD members elected as convention delegates and managed to turn the 2022 convention from a ceremonial snooze fest and rubber stamp to a locus of debate. The convention raised strike pay and had it start on a strike’s first day instead of its eighth — ensuring the union’s $800 million strike fund could be used to make the decision to strike less painful for members.
UAWD, which by this time included both factory workers and members from the union’s newer higher-ed locals, then nominated seven people for a slate called UAW Members United to run for the fourteen-member executive board. Again members campaigned hard, taking road trips around the Midwest and holding Zoom events in addition to all their other tactics. The Administration Caucus, accustomed to total control for nearly eighty years, still did not take the UAWD threat seriously. When members voted in fall 2022, still with a very low turnout, five Members United candidates and one friendly independent were elected outright and the other two, including presidential candidate Shawn Fain, went to a runoff.
At this point, the Administration Caucus woke up and threw everything it had into holding on to the presidency. Fain was finally elected by a slim margin in March 2023 and sworn in just hours before the union’s scheduled bargaining convention.
Faith in the Members
UAWD did not represent a supermajority of the members and only a bare majority of those who voted. Yet Fain and his allies on the board and in the rank and file believed they could win over and activate members who had been uninvolved, skeptical, or even despairing about their union. Most had never been part of the UAW when it made much sense to come to a meeting.
So, despite the deep muck at union headquarters and the fact that local officers were almost uniformly allied with the Administration Caucus, they set to work on a contract campaign — strike pledge cards, practice picketing, lots of communication, lots of media — that built to the strike that started last week. Despite their slim majority, they took their mandate seriously and pushed hard to do what they had promised.
The results have been stunning. Members at the Big Three, whether they voted for UAWD or for no one, are thrilled that their president is actually sharing the union’s demands, speaking to them regularly via Facebook Live (and responding in real time to comments in the chat), and calling out the CEOs who make up to $14,000 an hour, with class-struggle language seldom heard outside a Bernie Sanders rally. The excitement on the picket lines and the creativity of the slogans and tactics members are inventing are haven’t been seen in the union in many decades. Members have rediscovered respect for their union and for themselves as autoworkers and union members.
Some union strategists speak only to incumbent officers, brushing aside the fact that a big majority of elected officials are not interested in changing their ways. Many officers, in some unions most officers, need to be replaced, and that happens only through rank-and-filers organizing to do so — usually a slow process (TDU was founded in 1976). Fain and the new UAWD-backed leadership gained momentum by going directly to rank-and-file members, organizing around local leaders who still backed the Administration Caucus.
Seize the Moment
That brings up a second lesson, which is for workers to grab their chance even if they’re not completely ready. In a perfect world, UAWD would have grown through the years to represent a majority of well-organized members, proving itself through practice at the local level. Instead, a random corruption investigation, initiated during the Donald Trump years, changed everything.
Lesson three, then, could be that it’s worthwhile to keep the spark of reform alive even when it’s tiny. Some of the UAWD founders were part of Autoworker Caravan, a group founded in 2008 to respond to the Chrysler bankruptcy. Caravan was never large — at some points attracting more retirees than active members — but it analyzed contracts, agitated to vote them down, and distributed information. Some of its leaders had been part of socialist groups’ “turn to industry” in the 1970s. And the Caravan in turn incorporated veterans of the New Directions Movement of the 1980s, which had galvanized factory workers (especially in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas) but was eventually beaten down by the Administration Caucus. Some UAWD leaders today go back as far as New Directions. The politics of union reform were kept alive even when hopes were bleak.
Now UAWD is helping workers develop into organizers. It’s shown them how to call ten-minute meetings in their plants and how to organize practice pickets, flying squadrons, and overtime refusals. Leaders are well aware that despite the tremendous victory of winning at the top, their work to transform the union is just beginning. We can learn from UAWD how to seize the moment. Reform caucuses are an essential part of a winning labor strategy.
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