Reformers Demand Democracy in UAW

The recent United Auto Workers internal elections were highly contested between the long entrenched Administration Caucus and the reform-minded Unite All Workers for Democracy caucus. The election resulted in a massive upset win for the reform caucus and for supporters of more democratic unions everywhere.

This article was first published in the Spring 2023 print issue of The Activist, which can be found here.

Reformists pulled off stunning victories in the 2022 United Auto Workers (UAW) International Executive Board (IEB) elections, surprising everyone from new members to veteran labor journalists. These victories come as a result of a long trail of reform pushes, including calling a special convention for “one-member, one vote,” challenging decades of concessions and corruption of the incumbent Administration Caucus. The reform caucus, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), ran a UAW Members United slate, which won five races outright and sent the remaining two to run-offs. The reformers won one run-off and had a long wait to find out that in the presidential race Members United candidate Shawn Fain won by less than 500 votes. Fain was sworn in as International President last month. 

“Just frankly, I just never thought I would live to see the day when that grip on power was challenged,” said Barry Eidlin, associate professor of sociology at McGill University and DSA-LA member. Even with the nail-biter presidential race, Eidlin states, “the administration caucus’ hold on power has been profoundly shaken.”

UAWD is a relatively young effort, initiated with the 2019 General Motors strike, and is the latest in a series of attempted reform movements within UAW. After securing two vice-presidents, a secretary-treasurer, and directors for Regions 1, 9, 9A, the Members United slate now hold a reformer caucus majority on the IEB as Fain brings it home. 

Former head steward at UCSF-UAW 5810, former USF YDSA founder, and current DSA SF member Sayeh Jafari described the election results as, “kicking out the bad guys who have been taking our dues and buying Cuban cigars and going gambling and all the stuff that you think villain union bosses do in movies, and then also having an opportunity to build power in our workplaces with our co-workers, alongside building around a campaign to take back our union.” 

Reflecting on the Students Workers of Columbia (SWC) 2021 strikes, Becca Roskill from Columbia YDSA and SWC-UAW 2710 discussed how a lack of democratic participation prematurely ended a strike for an unsatisfactory tentative agreement — an experience shared by many across the UAW. 

“Whether you’re a grad worker, casino worker, a nurse, an auto worker, it’s really all too likely that you’ve experienced your union negotiating a contract without much democratic input,” said Roskill. “Or in other cases, even forcing you to vote on the same contract over and over again, when you and your coworkers have already rejected it.” 

After electing reformers to SWC leadership, a second ten-week strike won the workers’ core demands. Roskill credits the success of the second strike with new deliberate efforts to amplify the voices of rank-and-file membership in decision-making, which should be encouraged in the union. 

A Hostile Culture

Many UAW members pointed to the existing hostile culture toward democratic participation as a cause for the low election turnout. 

“Members in the UAW have not been accustomed to having a voice and when they have tried to have a voice, largely found themselves shut down when they vote on contracts, for example.” said Eidlin, corroborating Roskill’s experience at SWC. 

The UAW constitutional convention occurs every four years, where locals send elected delegates to represent membership on issues raised in union-wide resolutions. Previously, conventions were not institutional avenues for democratic participation. 

Jane Slaughter, Labor Notes co-founder, former UAW member, and Detroit DSA member, commented on the Administration Caucus’ omnipresence, which “was particularly evident at the conventions where the delegates would be mostly loyalists, and anybody who raised any dissident opinions, they would sometimes shout them down or very frequently use their army of staff members to intimidate people and make sure they voted the way they wanted.” 

The 2022 convention saw the Administration Caucus clash severely with reformers and delegates. Riding on the success of the 2021 one-member, one-vote referendum that won direct elections for leadership, delegates arrived at the conference ready for change. An organic motion from the floor passed overwhelmingly, and raised weekly strike pay to $500. Previously confident in their grip on power, the Administration Caucus found itself floundering and reacted, enraged. 

“They spent the last day calling out young members, calling out higher-ed members, calling out reformers for being outsiders,” said Brandon Mancilla, newly elected Region 9A director of the Members United slate and former HGSU-UAW 5118 president. “They were telling us that we were dividing the union.” 

Strike pay was reversed back to $400 under the Administration Caucus’ demands. Even enlisting a preacher to castigate delegates, the Administration Caucus clearly did not approve of this wave of reformist democratic participation since it was inconsistent with the way they held control. 

“If you came to the union meeting and raised your hand, people would tell you, ‘you’re out of order’ and ‘sit down and shut up,’” said Slaughter. “There’s a reason that people have been very pessimistic about the idea of changing the union. Thank God, there were some who did try to change the union and founded UAWD.” 

Breaking Cycles and Fostering Long-Term Change

UAWD focused its efforts on reaching rank-and-file membership by phone banking and canvassing, with dedicated staffers paid by fundraised money. With comparatively much fewer resources and less reach, the reformers pulled off incredible victories to unseat incumbents. 

“It shows how little faith there is in the existing leadership such that even with all the advantages of incumbency, and all the resources at their disposal, that they were unable to make a convincing case to the members for why they should be in power,” said Eidlin. 

“Now the challenge of the new people coming in is to try to create a different culture in the union,” said Slaughter. 

Reform movements are gaining strength across the labor movement. It is up to new leadership to put power back in the hands of workers, and live up to the commitments made during the campaign cycle. 

“Contesting for formal leadership is not enough,” said Cyn Huang, a former YDSA National Co-Chair from Cal YDSA and UAW 2865. “It’s going to be a long term revitalization project.” 

As card-carrying socialists know, real progress must be backed up by a mass movement. UAWD leadership needs to activate a strong, participating population within the union to fulfill its goals. 

“Without power on the shop floor, without mass action from rank-and-file workers, our elected leaders alone will be unable to win what workers need,” said Roskill. Referencing upcoming contract negotiations with UAW auto workers, she adds, “our task is to get workers across the country ready for battle.” 

For reformers working within UAW, this election was a fight for democracy itself. 

“A lot of people like to talk about democracy as an abstract ideal, and I think a lot of that is a consequence of decades of neoliberalism and also labor-management partnership, and especially the postwar period of profitability,” said Huang. “Unions, to that extent, have mostly forgotten how to fight, but I think in today’s context, it’s pretty clear what the political stakes of having a more democratic union are. If members don’t feel like their organization or the political process is responsive to their input, they’re not going to participate in it.” 

After participating and organizing in the biggest higher-education strike in US history, Huang argues, “We need open, democratic unions in order to have unions that are powerful enough to take on the boss and win.”

Socialists as Organizers and Supporters 

Jafari noted that she ran to sign her card the moment she was eligible to join the union. During union onboarding, when she shared that she organized with YDSA, she was asked to put her name forward for head steward because there was a lack of committed leadership. 

“A big reason that I’m so involved in UAW is because I had the experience of YDSA that pointed me toward the labor movement and toward Marxist politics,” said Jafari. 

UAW and Y/DSA dual members like Roskill, Jafari, and Huang pointed to positive examples of organizing experience and political education built up in both organizations. Whether one is committed to the rank-and-file strategy or not, socialists in the workplace undoubtedly have an important role to play in bolstering the US labor movement today. 

“Being a socialist in the workplace doesn’t mean that you go to work and talk about socialism in the break room,” said Eidlin. “It means that you’re actually organizing, actually showing that you’re helping people develop the tools that they need to build power at work and take control of their lives.” 

The labor movement is abuzz with progressive reform, and socialists need to drive those tough conversations. 

In terms of what Y/DSA members can do in their own unions, Slaughter suggests considering, “Can you advocate within the union to have a contract campaign? Can you advocate for strikes or are there democracy changes that you might want to make in the local?” 

Recalling her experience on strike at UCSF, Jafari emphasized the importance of showing up and supporting striking workers with food, picketing assistance, strike funds, and energy. 

“When you’re on strike for as long as we were, it’s really really hard,” said Jafari. “My fuel for the strike was definitely running short. And I think having a community around, not just my coworkers, but also my YDSA and DSA comrades, really helped me keep fighting and gave me hope to win.” 

Y/DSA members who are not in the union still have a responsibility and duty to support workers on the picket line. A consistent socialist presence shows commitment to solidarity, which is especially important while fighting against the collective enemy of capital. 

“When the ability to strike is tied up with demands for social justice and community empowerment and anti-oppression, that can be really powerful and could change the entire landscape of power in this country,” said Mancilla.

As UAWD works to put power back in the hands of workers, workers will remember how to wield it. Y/DSA members in unions can join reform movements demanding democracy, which in turn creates the power to build that better world together. 

“We’re building consciousness and we’re developing students in colleges and universities across the country into fighting members of labor so that when they graduate and take these organizing skills into the rest of their lives, we’ve trained as socialist organizers who are ready to go out into the world and help with this extremely important task of rebuilding ties between the left and the labor movement,” said Roskill. 

Moving forward from this pivotal election, the US labor movement continues to build democratic power, and socialists will be right there as and alongside workers to demand justice and dignity for all.