United Auto Workers on Brink of Unprecedented Leadership Upset

After years of corruption scandals and concessions to the auto industry, the UAW finds itself on the precipice of radical new leadership.

Irvine, CA - December 06:  A message is written on a wall as University of California picketers protest at University of California-Irvine in Irvine Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022 in Irvine, CA. Strikers consist of members of by the United Auto Workers (UAW), which represents Academic Student Employees (Teaching Assistants/Associates, Readers, and Tutors), Graduate Student Researchers, Postdoctoral Scholars, and Academic Researchers (Academic Specialists, Project Scientists, and Professional Researchers). It's finals week for UC students and tens of thousands of academic workers remain on strike. This has put a huge wrench in how finals are administered, how undergraduates prepare for finals and when, how and if grades are submitted. Some faculty are standing in solidarity with striking workers and refusing to submit grades until an agreement is reached.  (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Members of the United Auto Workers picket at the University of California, Irvine, in Irvine, Calif., on Dec. 6, 2022. Photo: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In a historic election that could dramatically reshape the 400,000-member United Auto Workers union, insurgent challenger Shawn Fain currently leads incumbent Ray Curry by a margin of 645 votes for the union’s top leadership role.

The election of Fain and the Unite All Workers for Democracy slate would bookend years of corruption investigations into the old guard of UAW leadership. The scandals, the insurgent faction contends, distracted from multiple major contract negotiations with America’s largest auto manufacturers and soured rank-and-file members against leadership.

The victory would be another notch in the belt of progressive labor reformers in some of the nation’s most influential unions.

“A Fain victory is the difference between solidarity unionism — rank-and-file unionism — and the company unionism that we’ve been experiencing in the UAW for several decades now,” Scott Houldieson, a leader of Unite All Workers for Democracy, told The Intercept. “Look no further than the last set of negotiations when GM workers were on strike. There was a complete information blackout. The workers on the picket line knew what they wanted out of the contract: no more tiers, no more pensions bleeding dry, and bringing back cost-of-living adjustments. There was none of that messaging coming out of negotiations from past leadership.”

“A Fain victory is the difference between solidarity unionism — rank-and-file unionism — and the company unionism that we’ve been experiencing.”

For the first time, members of the UAW voted directly to select their president through a one-member, one-vote system. The switch away from the delegate system followed federal oversight to keep an eye on the scandal-plagued union and momentum from rank-and-file members seeking to democratize the electoral process. In light of the auto union’s failure to clean shop, an independent monitor was appointed by a federal judge to ensure election integrity.

When ballot counting ended over the weekend, the monitor said that no determination could be made on an electoral winner until some 1,600 ballots are reviewed later this week.

That didn’t stop Curry from declaring a preemptive victory.

“The process that UAW members have chosen requires that every member’s vote be counted,” the Curry campaign said in a statement. “We can confirm that there are significant votes outstanding that should be counted, and it would be premature to make outcome assumptions at this time. We are confident that when the process is complete, we will be successful.”

Despite the incumbent campaign’s assurances, the narrow margin with Fain in the lead means an overthrow of the UAW’s old guard remains on the table. Challenged ballots are being reviewed to determine membership eligibility, and there is no indication that once reviewed they will reverse Fain’s lead.

A Fain victory would follow on the heels of another leadership upset in one of America’s most powerful unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. In 2021, a ticket led by Sean O’Brien defeated the incumbent slate led by James Hoffa, who, like his father, led the union for decades. After their victory, the new Teamsters’s leadership assumed an aggressive posture and has since committed to massively expanding on-the-ground organizing to combat consolidation and wage deflation in the transportation and shipping industry.

The UAW leadership race was the final step in the union’s monthslong election process. The vote came just after Daniel Vicente, another candidate on the Unite All Workers for Democracy slate, won his race to the international executive board last week in a runoff election. If Fain’s lead holds, the Unite All Workers for Democracy faction could garner a powerful majority on the UAW’s governing body.

Turnout to determine the UAW’s next president exceeded the first round of voting in December, which saw insurgent reformist candidates take six seats on the international executive board. After neither candidate for union president reached the 50 percent vote threshold needed to clinch victory, voting went to a second round, which concluded last week.

Ahead of the election, critics of incumbent Curry claimed that he represents the UAW’s scandal-ridden past and that the opposition of his Administration Caucus to democratic reforms like one-member, one-vote suggests that the old guard faction isn’t amenable to change.


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“To me, we’re at a crossroads,” Fain said in a November interview with Bloomberg Law. “We have to get leaders in there who are going to take action and be proactive and not wait for things to happen then react to it. To me, our leadership has been way too complacent — more reactive than proactive.”

Fain hammered UAW’s incumbent leadership for failing to take an aggressive negotiating posture toward large auto manufacturers and blasted the tiered employment system, which splits auto workers into different classes of employees, weakening union benefits in the process.

He’s also attacked the UAW’s failure to take an aggressive stance on auto manufacturers’ planned expansion into nonunionized plants in the South for building electric vehicles.

“For too long, the UAW has been controlled by leadership with a top-down, company union philosophy,” Fain said in a press release. “Ray Curry and the Administration Caucus have been unwilling to confront the companies, and as a result we’ve seen nothing but concessions, corruption, and plant closures. We now have a historic opportunity to get back to setting the standard across all sectors, and to transform the UAW into a member-led, fighting union once again. The future of the working class is at stake.”

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