Major Union Passes Historic Reform for Democracy Years After Corruption Scandal

The members of the United Auto Workers have voted overwhelmingly to move to a direct voting system for choosing their union leadership — “one member, one vote.” With all votes counted as of December 2, direct elections had the support of 63.6 percent of voters.

It’s a historic win for reformers in one of the nation’s most important unions, where members have pushed for this change for decades.

After years of corruption prosecutions of top union officials, the UAW and U.S. Department of Justice brought about a consent decree. The agreement was reached after the UAW and US Department of Justice reached a long-term agreement.

One million people were eligible to vote in this mail-ballot referendum. This included 400,000 active members as well as 600,000 retirees. 143,000 of those returned ballots.

Susan Perry, a former UAW Local 685 officer who retired after 32 years at the Chrysler Transmission plant in Kokomo (Indiana), was not surprised to see the 80 percent support vote in her local. This was the first time it had been tallied. “I would’ve been shocked if it was any other way,” Perry said. “I just assumed it was a done deal. Because that’s what the members have been trying to get for 30 or 40 years.” (The New Directions movement, formed in the mid-1980s by UAW activists frustrated with the union’s concessions and embrace of partnerships with employers, was behind an earlier push for direct elections.)

The second large local counted was Local 862, representing 14,000 active members and 5,500 retirees at Ford’s Kentucky Truck and Louisville Assembly Plants. It voted 81 percent in favor of direct elections. Chris Budnick, a member of Local 862, is on the steering board for the reform network Unite All Workers for Democracy. He credits the long-standing push to discipline top union leaders for corrupt practices for the success.

“Local 862 was the first local to press [internal union]There are charges for [former UAW President] Gary Jones,” Budnick said. (Jones was eventually convicted in federal court of embezzlement and sentenced to imprisonment. “We got it approved by the membership to go forward with it. Our local was fighting corruption. Now we’re being asked, ‘Do we want one member one vote or do we want to keep the system?’ It was a vote for change.”

Even more surprising, perhaps, was the 69 percent support for direct elections in Local 600, the Ford local in Dearborn, Michigan, which Budnick called “ground zero of the Administration Caucus.” (The Admin Caucus is the one party that has ruled the union for generations.) Rory Gamble, the UAW president, was elected from late 2019 to June this year. Bob King, who held it from 2010 through 2014, was also elected to Local 600. It’s the union’s largest local, with over 25,000 members and retirees.

Eric Truss, who has contested for local office in Local 600 since 2004 and is a member of the UAWD steering committee, said the local’s culture mirrors the culture that has allowed the Admin Caucus to maintain its tight grip on the international union’s delegate system. “Any time you run for something you’re bullied, you’re pressured. So people don’t speak up. They were excited when we flew, but they kept their excitement to themselves. Now, texts and calls are coming in. Now they’re willing to be excited and talk about it.”

Other large bases of support came from higher education locals, which make up a fifth of the union’s active membership. The University of California Graduate Workers Local 2865 voted for direct elections at 84 percent. This percentage was only beaten by the Harvard Graduate Students Union Local 5118 which voted a staggering 97 percent.

Harvard was closely followed by Local 2366, which represents approximately 175 John Deere workers from Coffeyville in Kansas. They voted 95 percent yes. Deere workers voted in nine localities in Kansas, Iowa and Illinois (more than 68 percent) for one member, just one vote.

“The strike no doubt gave us a unique perspective, the referendum ballots going out right on the top of our strike,” said Deere worker Nolan Tabb of Local 281. “[UAW leadership]31% increase [in pay]The delegates chose 2018 for their delegates, but they were pushing the original offer from our company, which was a minimal increase. So it’s like, how is 3 percent sufficient for us but you got a 31 percent increase?”

Tabb believes elections at the top will mean accountability for leaders who negotiate bad contracts: “The good old boys system has been held in place because they’re not elected spots. Not only do we not have control over who gets put into those positions, but we don’t have control over getting those people Out of those positions.”

He said the result “clearly validates the perspective that the rank-and-file members will no longer just keep it ‘business as usual’ — neither with the company perpetuating corporate greed, nor the good old boys system that’s gone unchecked and unaccounted for in our leadership.”

The Campaign(s).

The referendum result is the culmination two years of organizing in the midst of what federal prosecutors call the largest union corruption scandal. After the fall 2019 charges against Jones, locals began to file resolutions calling for the discipline of top UAW officers under Articles 32 and 30. Members then began calling for a special convention, under Article 8, to take up the “one member, one vote” question.

Through these struggles to hold their top leaders accountable the rank-and file group UAWD was created. Scott Houldieson, Local 551 Chicago, was one of the founding members. He was also a leader in the fight to bring Article 32 ethics cases against top leaders. “We’ve been advocating those things for a long time,” he said. “Myself, for better than a decade, but guys like [UAWD steering committee members]Mike Cannon and Bill Parker were together for more than 40 years, and 50 years respectively. Most members don’t know this history. They just know that they have an opportunity in front of them right now to take back their union, and they’re acting on it.”

These efforts failed to meet the thresholds required for a special convention to be called, but they were revived in the consent agreement between the UAW & the Department of Justice.

The agreement to hold a referendum on “one member, one vote” did not guarantee the outcome, however. To do that, rank-and file members had to organize. Very few local officers came out in explicit support of a yes vote, and the Administration Caucus closed ranks, alternately acting as if the referendum didn’t exist — the incumbents refused to inform members about the vote beyond the strictest mandates of the monitor — and then exhorting members to “Protect the Wheel.” (A wheel is the union’s logo.)

The incumbents extolled their cooperation with investigators. They exhorted members not to change the status quo system where rank-and-file members elect convention delegate (often local officers), who then elect the international officers. They warned against smaller locals being drowned out by larger ones, outside “dark money” influencing elections, and low voter participation allowing a small group to decide the union’s future. Members were curious about the flyers against direct elections that appeared in their break rooms just before shifts. However, local presidents denied that they had placed them there.

UAWD was able to hit the streets in dozens more localities. Active members and retired personnel flew, set-up textbanks and phonebanks, as well as held a week of action to mark the occasion. Battle of the OverpassFord’s union was born out of the 1937 confrontation between auto workers with company goons. UAWD held weekly meetings open to all members, circulated “one member, one vote” pledges, launched a websiteTo spread the word on the referendum, we used social media to reach filers and rank across the country to get them involved in the campaign for the right of vote.

What’s Next?

The next step is unclear. According to the consent decree

“the UAW Constitution shall be amended to incorporate [the one member, one vote]principle with respect its IEB [international executive board]Elections before the next IEB elections will take place at or shortly after the UAW Constitutional Convention of June 2022. In such case, the Monitor will promptly confer with the UAW to draft language amending the UAW Constitution affirming the ‘one member, one vote’ principle for inclusion in the UAW Constitution at the next UAW Constitutional Convention.”


“the Monitor, in consultation with the UAW, shall develop all election rules and methods for the election of members of the IEB during the period of oversight.”

Some members are worried about the vagueness of this language and the potential impropriety of the UAW — here meaning the current leadership of the union, which is avowedly against direct elections — conferring with the Monitor on amending constitutional language, and consulting with the Monitor on election rules and methods.

Most members expect to see some form of delegate-based nominations threshold. This model is similar to what exists in the Teamsters. Candidates must win the support of at minimum 5 percent of conventiondelegates to be eligible to vote. Other possible models are the ILWU, where a “primary” election at the convention determines who makes it onto the general ballot, or the Steelworkers, where candidates must receive endorsements from a certain number of local unions to reach the ballot, or a membership-wide, petition-based nominations process (which in the Teamsters is a prerequisite for nomination at the convention). Electronic balloting could be allowed and campaign spending could be limited by election rules.

Members can expect a showdown at their convention in June 2022. It could be over the nomination itself, or specificities about how the election will be conducted, or any other constitutional changes they would like to pursue. The convention delegate race, which is most likely to take place this spring, will be hotly contested.

The referendum opens the door for a contested election for the top leadership of the union — something that hasn’t happened in a very long time. The question is: Who will run? Administration Caucus leaders such as incumbent President Ray Curry will likely present their case to members to show that they are the most qualified candidates. They have occupied all the top representational and bargaining positions in the union for decades. Following a corruption scandal, Laborers voted in unison to elect their incumbent president when they switched to direct elections in 1990s.

On the other hand, UAW members could “throw the bums out,” opting for a new leadership backed by the nascent reform group UAWD, as happened in the first direct elections in the Teamsters in 1991, when Teamsters for a Democratic Union-backed reformer Ron Carey took the helm. It will be interesting for UAW members to see if any large local leaders, who have largely remained silent until now, are willing to speak out for reform and get their hands dirty.

Bruce Baumhower, head of Local 12 in Toledo, the union’s third-largest auto local, was one of the few local presidents to come out publicly in support of direct elections. But, as the Toledo Blade reported in November, “Mr. Baumhower said that many of the current UAW vice-presidents have been supportive of his union. He stated that while a one-member one vote system doesn’t mean that current leadership will be ousted, it would allow for more accountability. ‘I just think times have changed,’ he said.”

Ray Jensen, a member of Local 774 at General Motors’ Tonawanda Engine Plant near Buffalo, said his priority will be electing leaders who remember what it’s like to be a working member. “I don’t care what sector they come from,” he said, “as long as they’ve come from the floor, they’ve been in our position, they’ve worked the jobs, they know what it’s like to start at the bottom, not be appointed to a [union staff]Position on your second day of work

“I want someone who’s in touch with reality — the wants, the goals, the job. The UAW is a great organization. It’s the leadership that’s given us a black eye,” Jensen said. “I’d like to see someone in there who’s a blue-collar worker, not necessarily a certified public accountant like Gary Jones. Somebody who knows what we need going forward:, to stay healthy, to earn a decent wage and living and decent retirement benefits.”

For UAWD, the reform network that was formed just under two years ago, the fight remains the same — if now on far more favorable terrain. Budnick sees the low turnout as a sign of the organizing work that’s yet to be done.

In his own local, “we’ve got at least 10,000 members more that are active and didn’t vote, and the ballot went to their house,” he said. “That bothers me. And that’s the whole point of one member, one vote for me — the main point, besides having the right to vote, was for member engagement. This is supposed to engage the membership.” As to why that hasn’t happened through the referendum, Budnick blames decades of Admin Caucus rule. “The membership has been complacent, because we didn’t have anywhere to go,” he said. “Every time somebody tried to do something it just got shot down by the Administration Caucus. They’ve just been beaten down into their place, and it kind of sucks.”

Tens of thousands UAW members voted to change the status quo. For Houldieson, the result shows that “members want a choice. They want to have a say in how their international union, that they pay union dues to, is administered.” Where that choice will take the union is now, finally, up to the members to decide.