DETROIT — For the United Auto Workers, the past five years have been one of the most troubling chapters in the union’s storied history.
A federal investigation found widespread corruption, with a dozen top officials, including two former presidents, found guilty of embezzling more than $1 million in union funds for luxury travel and other lavish personal expenses. Since last year, the union has been under the control of a court-appointed monitor charged with monitoring the implementation of anti-corruption reforms.
The scandal has tarnished a once powerful organization and left many of its 400,000 active members angry and disillusioned.
“You bet I’m crazy,” said Bill Bagwell, who has been in the UAW for 37 years and works at a General Motors parts warehouse in Ypsilanti, Michigan, represented by Local 174. our money, workers’ money I don’t like people stealing our money.
Now, UAW members have the opportunity to determine the extent to which they wish to break with that past. In one of the changes prompted by the corruption scandal, the union will this year choose its leaders through a direct election – its first. Until now, the president and other senior officials were chosen by delegates to a convention, a system in which the union’s executive council could shape the outcome through favors and patronage, and the results did not always reflect the opinions from the base.
“Everyone in power is in one party, and it’s always been that way,” said William Parker, a retired worker who is eligible to vote and hopes to see a new slate of officers take over. . “But now we have one man, one vote, and we are mobilizing for change.”
For four days last week, at a sometimes chaotic convention in Detroit, some 900 delegates debated a wide range of issues facing the union. Four members were nominated to challenge incumbent President Ray Curry in the fall election. Under rules approved by delegates, the union’s roughly 600,000 retirees can vote but cannot run for leadership positions. If no candidate obtains at least 50% of the votes, the first two will compete in a second round.
Convention deliberations dragged on each day as members took to the microphones to offer motions, objections and requests for clarification. A day after voting to increase strikers’ allowances to $500 a week from $400, they reversed the decision. At least three times, Mr. Curry had to deliver a state of the union address only for protracted debates to force adjournments, and the convention adjourned without his address.
Mr. Curry is considered a strong favorite for re-election. He held senior positions for more than a decade and became president in 2021 following the corruption scandal.
A potentially serious challenger is Shawn Fain, an electrician who has been a member of the UAW for 28 years and holds a staff position at union headquarters. He is on a list of candidates for leadership positions and is backed by a dissident group, Unite All Workers for Democracy, which has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the election campaign.
“Members have to believe in leadership and believe that corruption is behind us,” Fain said.
The other candidates are Brian Keller, a quality worker at Stellantis who for years has run a Facebook group criticizing union leadership; Will Lehman, a worker at a Mack Truck plant in Pennsylvania; and Mark Gibson, president of Local 163 in Westland, Michigan.
The challengers and Mr Curry agree on most of the key issues at stake in next year’s contract negotiations. Members want automakers to take back cost-of-living wage adjustments, once a key part of UAW contracts, and eliminate pay differences between newer and older workers. Workers hired in 2007 or earlier earn full UAW wages of about $32 an hour and receive guaranteed pensions. Workers hired after 2007 started with lower salaries and can work up to the highest five-year salary. They get a 401(k) retirement account instead of a pension.
Dorian Fenderson, a UAW member at a GM site in Warren, Michigan, started a year ago as a temporary worker at $17 an hour and after four months was hired on a permanent basis. , earning $22 an hour.
“There are people making $34 doing the same job as me,” he said. “I know they’ve been here a long time, but it’s not really fair to people like me.”
Opposition candidates have called on the UAW to take a more confrontational line in contract negotiations to win back concessions now that manufacturers are solidly profitable, and to push them to keep more production in the United States and use more of union labor. GM is building four battery plants in a joint venture, and Ford Motor is building three with its own partner. The union will have the opportunity to organize these factories, but success is not guaranteed.
“We were haemorrhaging jobs, and that has to stop,” Fain said.
Curry said he was confident battery factories would be organized and workers would be covered by UAW contracts with automakers. He said similar joint ventures have been represented by the union in the past and noted that current contracts award engine production to the UAW.
“Our belief is that batteries are the powertrains of electric vehicles,” he said in an interview. “It’s just a new technology. We have the right to negotiate that and establish those locations.
A potential weakness for Mr. Curry could be recent actions that have angered some members. He and his executive board members recently raised salaries and pensions for themselves and others working at union headquarters. A vice president running for re-election spent $95,000 in union funds on backpacks embroidered with his name to be given out to members at union rallies, a move that could be seen as using the money of the union for his campaign.
In a July report, court-appointed comptroller Neil Barofsky wrote he had 19 open investigations into possible wrongdoing and said Mr Curry’s management group had been uncooperative at times. Mr. Barofsky, a lawyer with a New York firm, wrote that union leaders discovered mismanagement of union funds by a senior official, but covered up the matter, adding that cooperation and transparency had improved in recent months.
Mr Curry said that once he learned of the problems communicating with the monitor, he stepped in and fixed the problem.
“You have to read the report to the end, and at the end the monitor talks about true transparency, response time and change of counsel, steps we’ve taken to show we’re moving in a positive direction” , did he declare. “And I asked the monitor, if he has any problems, to come straight to me so that I don’t read about it in a report four months later.”
Mr. Barofsky declined to comment beyond the findings of his report.
Decades ago, the UAW was a powerful organization that could influence presidential elections and consistently won pay and benefit increases, often through ruthless bargaining and strikes. His contracts with GM, Ford, and Chrysler set standards that helped raise wages and benefits for working classes across the country, whether unionized or not.
But his fortunes waned as Detroit automakers steadily scaled back operations in the United States and struggled to compete as Toyota, Honda, Nissan and other foreign automakers built ununionized plants in the South. GM and Chrysler’s bankruptcy filings in 2009 forced the union into once-unthinkable concessions, including the two-tier wage structure.
Over the past 10 years, automakers have rebounded, often with record revenues, and unionized workers have reaped the benefits. Last year, GM paid a profit-sharing bonus of $10,250 to each of its UAW employees. But on other fronts, the union is still in retreat. A 40-day strike in 2019 couldn’t stop GM from closing a factory in Lordstown, Ohio, and workers haven’t had cost-of-living adjustments to their wages since 2009.
The corruption investigation was launched around 2014 by the US Attorney in Detroit and eventually found schemes that diverted more than $1.5 million from membership dues and $3.5 million from training centers. Top union officials used the money to buy expensive cigars, wines, liquor, golf clubs, clothing and luxury travel.
More than a dozen UAW officials have pleaded guilty. As part of a consent decree to settle the investigation, the US District Court in Detroit appointed Mr. Barofsky to oversee the UAW’s efforts to become more democratic and transparent.
In July, a former UAW president, Gary Jones, was released from federal prison after serving less than nine months of a 28-month sentence. Another former executive, Dennis Williams, served nine months of his 21-month sentence. Other convicted officials were also released after serving less than half their sentences.
At the convention last week, the shortened sentences were a source of frustration for many attendees, but as the debates continued, many supported the positions of Mr. Curry and the current executive council on the problems that arose.
David Hendershot, a forklift driver at a Ford plant in Rawsonville, Michigan, said he wants the union to push for higher wages in contract talks next year and that he was not not satisfied with the corruption that had occurred. But he’s not sure he wants a drastic change in leadership. “I’ll probably stick with what we have,” he said.