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Workers are fed up. How that could influence outcome of historic UAW vote

Detroit — United Auto Workers members this month are casting ballots in a historic referendum that could change the union's decades-old system for electing leaders — and they're doing so as workers across the country push for better wages, benefits and working conditions amid a tight labor market and a pandemic that has laid bare long-standing inequities.

Many of the same factors that have prompted thousands of workers to strike and quit their jobs in record numbers also is fueling a movement within the Detroit-based union of some 1 million members to adopt a system that would allow members to directly elect their governing International Executive Board. And activists in the union hope broader momentum within the labor movement could help bolster their cause.

“You do have bleeding into this, this broader discontent among workers and this sense of ‘Let’s try something new,’" said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California Berkeley. "That doesn’t mean the direct election is going to win in this referendum. A lot will depend on turnout, a lot will depend on a number of things. But there’s little question that unrelated events, like the broader discontent in the labor force, is bleeding into this and could have an impact on the outcome.”

Voting — which began Oct. 19 and concludes Nov. 29 — is happening even as thousands of UAW members themselves have taken to picket lines in recent months to demand better contracts. The referendum has been a topic of discussion, for example, among some of the 10,000 John Deere workers across several states who went on strike Oct. 14. The strike ended last Wednesday after workers secured $8,500 signing bonuses, immediate 10% raises and future 10% raises, among other contract provisions that were better than what the company initially offered.

"Everybody's talking about all the stuff that's going on in the labor movement," said Jeremy Steffen, 42, who works at the agricultural equipment manufacturer's Waterloo, Iowa, drivetrain operations plant. "I haven't had anybody say anything other than direct elections is a no-brainer, that the current system, the status quo, ain't working for the rank-and-file membership."


Steffen is among the more than 100,000 workers who walked out or came close to it in October, part of a wave of strike activity and other labor actions that's been dubbed "Striketober" and now "Strikesgiving." Workers are leaving their jobs at unprecedented rates, too: a record 4.4 million workers quit in September, according to federal labor data.

The Cornell ILR Labor Action Tracker tallied 56 strikes in October and 41 between Nov. 1-22. And from the start of the year through mid-November, there have been more than 300. 

The actions this year have involved, among others, UAW members working at Ivy League universities, Alabama coal miners who have been on strike since April, 1,400 Kellogg's factory workers across four states including Michigan, 60,000 film and TV crew members, and tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers protesting a management proposal to establish a two-tier wage structure. 

“After many dark nights over decades for the labor movement, we’re seeing the resurgence of spirit and confidence in workers," Shaiken said. "They know it’s a tight labor market. They’ve done heroic things through the pandemic in many occupations, from assembly lines in auto factories to emergency medical technicians. And the result is, they’re no longer content to accept new concessions at a time of stratospheric rises in executive salaries and record profitability for corporations."

Workers have grown increasingly disillusioned by the widening income gap and growth in executive compensation. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, CEOs were paid 351 times as much as the average worker last year. And corporate profits swelled amid a pandemic that put many low-wage workers on the front lines as their jobs were deemed essential. 

"Workers didn’t have a lot of leverage, and the pandemic has changed all that. Suddenly, we have a tight labor market. People are angry," said Susan Schurman, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. "Folks want their fair share and are willing to strike to get it. So in that sense, I think you’re seeing probably one of the largest examples of labor movement mobilization in the last 40 years.”

Labor experts caution that these actions are happening against the backdrop of the labor movement's decline over the last several decades. The unionization rate in the U.S. peaked in the mid-1950s at roughly one-third of the workforce; that rate has declined precipitously in the ensuing decades. And this year's strike activity is quite small by historical standards. 

Still, a recent Gallup poll found that some 68% of Americans approved of unions — the highest rate since 1965. Union membership ticked up slightly last year, to 10.8%. And labor has a powerful ally in the White House, as President Joe Biden has declared he will be the most pro-union president in history. 

Steffen followed in his grandfather and father's footsteps when he started working at John Deere in 2010. He voted in favor of striking — the first major walkout at the company in 35 years — in large part because of the company's tiered wage system, which means that workers hired after 1997 have lower wages and benefits than those hired before that.

When John Deere and the UAW proposed a new agreement that would have created a third tier, rank-and-file members overwhelmingly rejected the pact, with 90% of votes against it. 

"The contract that they proposed to us basically foreshadows what they want to do to all of us," Steffen said. "I think that 90% says it all. They (the union) brought back something that they thought was good enough to pass, and 90% said no. To me, that's an extreme disconnect. ... I don't think they have a clue what the membership wanted or was thinking."

This perceived disconnect — magnified by a years-long UAW corruption scandal that's led to convictions of 15 people including two former union presidents — is why Steffen voted in favor of direct elections. He doesn't know for sure how such a system would work, or whether it will be advantageous for Deere workers: "But I'm willing to take that risk over just continuing the status quo."

One member, one vote

Under the UAW's current system for selecting leaders, union locals elect delegates to represent them at the constitutional convention every four years. There, delegates elect members of the International Executive Board. For more than 70 years, nearly all of those leaders have come from the Administrative Caucus started in the late 1940s by former UAW President Walter Reuther.

A move to a "one member, one vote" system of direct elections has been pushed for most recently by Unite All Workers for Democracy, or UAWD, an opposition caucus that has championed the change as one that would be more democratic and lead to more accountability. The referendum was a requirement of the settlement between the UAW and the Justice Department over the federal corruption investigation.

Opponents of direct elections, meanwhile, have contended they could weaken the union at the bargaining table. And the Administrative Caucus has expressed support for maintaining the current system. 

During a virtual forum last month hosted by the UAW monitor charged with administering the referendum, some members expressed concerns about a lack of clarity on what they would be voting on and the potential for corruption tied to campaign contributions.

"Does the current delegate system need reform? It absolutely needs reform," Craig Leavitt, a retiree of Local 659 in Flint, said during the forum. "My biggest fear is that the same dark money that today plagues our U.S. body politic will be influencing our union body politic and the International Executive Board will be bought and paid for by dark money."

UAW President Ray Curry has voiced support for the current delegate system, saying during a roundtable event in August that union leaders see it as "key and essential, and we would advocate for that to continue to be in process.”

Still, “I think that there is a grassroots desire to have leadership be more accountable to the rank and file needs and desires, and all of that relates to what workers have experienced," said Mark Gaston Pearce, executive director of the Workers' Rights Institute at Georgetown Law and a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board.

"That interrelation as it relates to the UAW is one where workers may be saying, it’s time for the tail to wag the dog, it’s time for us to be able to steer the ship … to let everybody know that representation stems from a bottom-up desire, not a top-down desire."

Chris Viola, 38, a worker at General Motors Co.'s Factory Zero Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, is voting in favor of direct elections because of his concerns for more recently hired autoworkers and those who have been uprooted by plant closures.

The UAW's agreement on a tiered wage system (which has since been reversed for Big Three employees) made him question union leaders' decisions, as Deere workers are doing now: "When I was hired, the tier system just kind of blew my mind because I didn't think that was what a union was. I thought a union was for everyone, equally paid for their time." 

And while the corruption scandal has been a driving influence for some members, Viola sees it as a symptom of more fundamental issues within the union: "The bigger issue is that we're settling for bad contracts, which is part of the corruption scandal because people have been bought off by some of the companies."

He'd like to see union members and leaders come together to develop a vision that includes more robust organizing initiatives. The ability to directly elect leaders, as he sees it, could foster greater accountability and give prospective members a reason to join.

He looks at the Deere strike and other ongoing labor actions and sees workers with some of the same frustrations he has: "I think that they're kind of drawing from the same pool of feelings of workers in general."

"Workers have been through a lot of abuse in the past year, and barely compensated in comparison to how the stock market’s been doing in the past year or so," he added. "I think that that’s probably something ... some of the unions may not be responding to because they’re not there. They’re not in it. There’s no real skin in the game. They’re bargaining for contracts that they don’t have to live with.”

Those leading the charge for "one member, one vote" are hoping that the broader mobilization of the U.S. labor movement could rally UAW members to implement change.

"It raises the consciousness of every UAW member, against the backdrop of the massive corruption schemes that occurred in the UAW," said Mike Cannon, 69, a 51-year member of the UAW and former international union employee who now is part of the group pushing for direct elections.

"Now, this gives them a vehicle to express their frustration.”

Twitter: @JGrzelewski