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United Auto Workers Prepare for Big Fights Ahead Under New Reform Leadership

Amid internal dissension, UAW is moving toward a more militant, democratic approach to upcoming contract negotiations.

A jeep Cherokee sits in front of the United Auto Workers union hall on February 28, 2023 in Belvidere, Illinois.

The brand-new leaders of the United Auto Workers (UAW) are making ambitious demands but face stiff organizing challenges as they seek to jump-start the union, ahead of a momentous contract expiration this September at Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler).

At the union’s Detroit convention this week, hundreds of delegates — often local leaders — signaled they were less ready than the members to welcome the reform leadership. But there was unanimity that it’s time to finally recoup the divisive contract concessions granted in the 2007-2009 recession. Under those contracts the then-ailing automakers were allowed to hire new workers at close to half pay and no pension.

On the first day, new President Shawn Fain called for union members to fight for a decisive end to years of givebacks and retreat.

“We are here to come together for the war against our one and only true enemy — the multibillion-dollar corporations and employers who refuse to give our members their fair share,” Fain said. On unifying the membership he added, “I don’t give a damn who you voted for. We are going to come together. We’re going to stop taking scraps — we are going to fight.”

At first, any statements from Fain or his team met a grumbling reception from a majority of delegates, aligned with the outgoing administration. But on the third day, Vice President Chuck Browning, the highest official now elected from the long-reigning Administration Caucus, said from the stage, “I hear worries we’re going to be a divided house going into negotiations, but that’s not true… Let’s support our President and International Executive Board.” Following that signal, Fain’s closing call to bring a unified fight against “corporate America… starting right now!” received a standing ovation from nearly all delegates.

Landmark Test for UAW

The UAW is the largest U.S. union for manufacturing workers — and for graduate student workers. It historically set a high bar for union contracts across the nation, based on a record of militant strikes and sit-downs. But beginning in the late 1970s, the UAW became a vanguard of concessions and labor-management partnership, and saw a wave of plant closures that slashed membership.

With the election breakthrough by a rank-and-file caucus, the UAW is set for a landmark test of how union reformers, both at the very top and in the ranks, will be able to turn the course of a major industrial union. From the convention, some speedbumps are apparent: hesitant middle layers of the union, inexperience with the very idea of a contract campaign against employers, and most of all, hostile employers used to getting their way.

Fain, head of the Members United slate and a member of the Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) caucus, was sworn in 24 hours before the convention opened.

Strike Threat Looms Large

The UAW’s Bargaining Conventions are held every four years as the “Big 3” automaker contracts near expiration. They are intended for locally elected delegates to guide the hand of the union’s bargaining teams, at least officially. In practice, bargaining conventions have typically placed a lukewarm rubber stamp on a 50-page “omnibus” resolution of vague bargaining goals passed down by leaders.

After raucous debate and a big bump in strike pay (to start day one, rather than day eight) made headlines at last July’s constitutional convention, reformers hoped this convention would set militant goals. But with new leaders fully taking office just a day before the convention, delegates had to start from bargaining resolutions assembled under direction of the outgoing officials.

On tiers, delegates approved a sweeping resolution calling on leaders to “reject management proposals which seek to divide the membership through tiered wages (or) benefits,” with an “obligation to seek the elimination of all such tiers.” The official resolution adopted this language verbatim from a July constitutional amendment offered by the UAWD caucus.

The strong rejection of tiers reflected widespread outrage among auto workers. Luigi Gjokaj, a delegate from Stellantis Sterling Heights Assembly, said, “The elephant in the room is a huge part of us don’t get a pension or retirement health care anymore, for the same job.” Dan Maloney, a local president from a New York auto parts plant, said, “It’s time for us to get rid of the two-tier system. I look forward to us getting that done in this round of bargaining.”

Delegates approved a few proposals brought from the floor, continuing the spirit of democracy newly evident at the July convention. With broad support in voice votes, UAWD resolutions passed that will demand the contractual right not to cross the picket lines of other unions, and move towards a wall-to-wall organizing strategy in higher education.

One delegate, an auto electrician, successfully proposed a bargaining demand to restore skilled trade classifications that were cut in prior concessions. Companies have combined trades in order to cut jobs.

On many official resolutions, delegates frequently stood to say they approved — but that their leaders needed to demand even more.

Plant closures have decimated UAW membership, like Stellantis’s shuttering of an assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois, less than a month before the convention, leaving over 1,300 out of work. A video eulogized the loss of the plant with tearful worker interviews and wistful guitar plucking. Soon after, an official resolution pledged to gain more “investment commitments” from companies for UAW plants, through “increased involvement” with corporate planning and “cooperation” to gain government aid.

For some auto workers, this sounded like not nearly enough. Crystal Pasarcik, from Stellantis Sterling Heights Assembly, rose to support the motion, but asked pointedly, “Why doesn’t this mention plant closures? What are we going to do to fight?” Mike Grimmer, a shop chairman from GM’s Tonawanda Engine Plant, added, “We have to stop begging. When the company threatens to take jobs away, that won’t work.”

Electric Transition

A transition to electric vehicles looms for the UAW, as Big 3 executives pledge to largely shift to the new drivetrains by the end of this decade. So far, U.S. companies plan to build these cars either with non-union labor in “joint ventures,” or with union contracts at lower tiers of pay. The official omnibus resolution committed to “embrace this change” towards electric vehicles with enhanced training and a demand for “improved compensation and job security” on jobs to come.

Again, delegates rose to say they wanted a more assertive plan. A delegate from a Stellantis plant in Ohio demanded, “I want this to add battery plants. I know you all want to make them UAW, but they can’t just be second-tier supplier jobs. We need to stand up to that.”

Mike Shuckwith, an electrician in a Michigan local that has grown with battery work, said, “I’m scared shitless of this push by GM to go all electric. We need it all in-house.” That echoed pledges from Fain to demand all electric vehicle work at joint ventures be brought under the new UAW contracts this fall.

Work schedule demands became an emotional subject. Dan Gilson, from Local 14 at GM in Toledo, rose to oppose the official work schedules proposal. “We can be forced to work 12- to 14-hour days. We can be forced every weekend. This has caused so much dissension in my plant, I can’t go back to them and say this language was all [we got]. I see [GM CEO] Mary Barra talking about family life. What the hell do you know about family life — you aren’t being forced to work!”

Debate on proposals proposed from the floor was something new for UAW conventions, continuing the openness established last July. Martin Tutwiler, a reform supporter from the GM Warren Tech Center, said that even when it wasn’t going their way, “the new leadership is letting the membership lead the convention. Any time you have a change in power, people are going to speak up.”

Raw Feelings

The convention revealed raw edges remaining from the election campaign, in which all seven reform challengers defeated members of the Administration Caucus (AC), the group that has ruled the union since 1946. (UAWD-supported candidates now fill seven International Executive Board seats, including four of the top five spots, to the AC’s six members, plus one independent reformer.)

But the convention delegates were elected in spring 2022, before members voted on officers in the fall. Delegates have traditionally been local officers. With little membership interest in the delegate elections, the AC has easily dominated convention votes.

That was mostly true at this week’s convention as well. The majority of delegates refused to hear out UAWD’s resolutions on Big 3 strike preparation and on bringing workers in new electric vehicle plants into top-tier contracts. On the first two days, these issues fell just short of the one-sixth share of delegate support needed to enter debate.

Another of UAWD’s top priorities did receive enough support to make it onto the floor: restoring cost-of-living adjustments to contracts. Their resolution asked that COLA be a part of initial bargaining proposals. Opponents, though, urged delegates to “respect the Resolutions Committee,” which had not prioritized COLA, and not to “hamstring our bargainers.” The resolution failed 311-191.

On the second day, some delegates began booing at the mere mention of the name UAWD. Linda Jackson of Local 7 in Detroit said that she and others were rubbed the wrong way when UAWD delegates mentioned their affiliation from the mikes, feeling it dragged out the election acrimony. “The Administration Caucus was a silent divider,” Jackson said. “UAWD is a physical divider, because you hear it.”

Another delegate, to much applause, declared his loyalty to “UAW with nothing on the end.”

Kim Janeski, financial secretary of Local 931 at Ford near Detroit, said that UAWD wanted to “break the system” and “wants change for change’s sake,” citing “endless debate, endless resolutions” and lack of experience. She was disdainful of newly elected regional director Dan Vicente, who until last week was a worker on the shop floor. “There are certain protocols,” Janeski said. “We’re in a seniority system — we work our way up.”

Asked how she thought Fain would approach negotiations, Janeski said he would be “obnoxiously aggressive.” She cited his opening remarks at the convention, in which he said, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” Janeski interpreted that as a rumble with AC members, not the companies. (Fain actually said, “The rumble of the election is finished” and called on members to unite against the employers.)

Amid that grudging reception of new leaders, some supporters of the outgoing officers said they were keeping an open mind. Pat Greca, a retiree still active with her local at Ford Rawsonville near Detroit, said, “My plant went from 6,000 when I started to 600 members today. Our union, we have to evolve, or else we might die. I see these new folks talk the talk, and I’ll see if they’ll walk the walk.”

Darin Gilley, an officer at a GM local in Wentzville, Missouri, said he thought “sour grapes won’t play well back home” and that he was already getting texts from members wondering why COLA was voted down. “Political differences are one thing,” he said, “it’s the paycheck difference that matters” — what the union wins in the next contracts.

Challenges Ahead for Contract Campaign

Unlike in some workplaces, it’s rarely been difficult to convince Big 3 UAW members to vote for and honor a strike. Strike votes are typically 98 percent ‘yes’ and there is virtually no crossing the picket line, even in right-to-work states.

But also unlike many other unions, the UAW has never run a contract campaign at the Big 3. That is, there’s never been an attempt to involve members in actions that let management know they are serious about the issues, or start pressuring the bottom line before a strike.

Instead, members usually learned a few hours before the strike that they were to hit the bricks, and picket duty was assigned. Members were not told specific goals of the strike, nor let in on progress of negotiations.

With little preparation beforehand, 48,000 members struck General Motors when the last contract expired in fall 2019. They stayed out for 40 days with disappointing results.

This year, the new UAW leadership has promised to involve members in a way that will unite them, and let them show the automakers what they’re willing to strike for.

As Secretary-Treasurer Margaret Mock, elected with the Members United slate, said in her address, “The UAW will call on the efforts of every rank-and-file member, as well as every leader, to win back all the givebacks since the UAW fell into the concessions trap in the 1980s… We will rely on the fighting spirit of the rank and file that even 40 years of concessions have not extinguished.”

“They are proud to go out, they understand they have power they can use,” said Shana Shaw, a member at GM’s plant in Wentzville, Missouri. “They are ready and willing to go out — they just need to know the in-between,” how to get active in a contract campaign.

A first step will be a bargaining survey distributed in the plants. Phil Reiter, from Toledo Jeep, planned to tell his members, “Don’t work on break. We’ve got to show them we won’t do any favors.”

Reiter wasn’t a delegate, but had driven up to witness how new leaders would change the union’s course. “It’s going to be tough at Stellantis,” he said. “Management is always talking cuts, cuts, cuts, and then they complain about quality. We’re at least 75 percent Tier Two or less in my plant. With this new leadership, I’m hopeful we’re finally heading in the right direction. I don’t see them giving us a BS tentative agreement. That’s why I voted for them.”

This story was originally published by Labor Notes.

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