Corruption probe leads to first UAW election overhaul in decades

Gary Jones, the newly elected president of the United Auto Workers (UAW), addresses the 37th UAW Constitutional Convention on June 14, 2018 at the Cobo Center in Detroit, Michigan.

Bill Pugliano | Getty Images News | Getty Images

DETROIT – A federal investigation into United Auto Workers’ corruption led to a reshuffle of union elections, potentially ending a 70-year-plus dynasty of rulers under which recent rulers accepted bribes and embezzled millions of membership dues and funds.

UAW members and retirees voted to change the union leadership election process from a weighted system based on delegates to a direct election, or “one member, one vote”, according to preliminary results released Thursday by a court-appointed UAW monitor.

Of 140,586 votes, 63.7% were in favor of adopting the “one member, one vote” system with 36.3% preferring the status quo, the Observer reported.

The scrutiny and the vote, which have yet to be certified, are the result of an agreement between the US Department of Justice and the union to end a corruption probe that sent 15 people to jail, including two recent presidents of UAW and three executives from Fiat Chrysler.

Officials say the impact of the new voting system on companies whose workers are represented by the UAW, especially automakers in Detroit, is unclear. Current leaders could stay in power as a caucus-backed list or run independently. A overhaul of union leadership could also occur, creating a wildcard situation for companies and potentially placing inexperienced or more combative negotiators in leadership positions.

“There could be one or more or all of the new leaders to head the union after the election is held,” said Kristin Dziczek, senior vice president of research at the Center for Automotive Research. “Whoever wins, caucus or non-caucus, the consequences for businesses are that they will be people who want to show value to members to get re-elected. The way to keep their powers is to improve contract workers.”

The UAW’s change comes amid a growing labor movement in the country that has involved strikes by organized workers, many of whom want compensation for working largely throughout the coronavirus pandemic in critical industries such as manufacturing and health. They also benefit from the support of President Joe Biden, who has strongly and continuously supported the unions and the workers’ organization.

The first direct election is scheduled for 2022, a year before crucial contract negotiations with General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler).

Reuther Administrative Caucus

The UAW is divided into international and local groups. The international leads the union’s operations and leads the national bargaining and organizing efforts. It is headed by a group called the International Executive Board, or IEB, which is made up of elected union representatives.

The new voting system will replace one where local shop stewards vote weighted according to the size of their members to elect international leaders. The leaders present themselves as a list with little to no opposition for decades.

As local union members elected their delegates, many criticized the process as being a rubber stamp for results that were already predetermined by a leadership group known as the Reuther Administrative Caucus.

The group is named after prominent UAW leader Walter Reuther, who retained the presidency from 1946 until his death in 1970 through this system. Regardless of the list of leaders supported by the caucus, it has essentially won a large majority since he led the union.

Supporters of the traditional UAW system have touted the peaceful and smooth transition of power over the decades as a major advantage. Critics say it allowed leaders to choose their successors and prompted local delegates to support the caucus in hopes of joining it or securing a position in the international union with a higher salary.

International union leaders can have annual salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even the smallest groups of service reps, assistants, and organizers can easily exceed $ 100,000.

More responsibility?

Scott Houldieson, a Ford employee from Indiana who has been a delegate to the past three UAW conventions, said the previous electoral process also allowed leaders to operate without accountability. He believes that the system “bred” the recent corruption.

Houldieson, who has been a staunch supporter of “one member, one vote,” has voted against Reuther’s administrative caucus to the sound of “hoots” at the past three UAW conventions. He is now part of a caucus called Unite All Workers for Democracy which plans to challenge the Reuther Administrative Caucus next year.

“The reason I am so supportive is that we have to build accountability into our system,” he said in a telephone interview. “I felt that our international leadership was not in the best interests of our members.”

FBI agents finish loading materials into a truck outside the home of United Auto Workers president Gary Jones on Wednesday, August 28, 2019.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

The impact of the new electoral system on UAW members as well as on businesses depends on how the new process is implemented, according to Frank Goeddeke, senior lecturer in management at Wayne State University in Detroit.

“The devil is always in the details, so that may affect how it’s going to play out,” said Goeddeke, who has co-authored a book on the UAW. “I think with a member one vote, I think officers will be more aware of how members are going to feel about certain things they do.”

Houldieson described the new voting process as a “big step in the right direction” but said it was only a “first step” in overhauling the union, which should remain under moderation federal government at least in the middle of the decade.

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