How the UAW Went From a Militant, Trailblazing Union to a Corrupt, Dealmaking One

Chris Brooks

UAW president Douglas Fraser (R) kicks off talks with GM’s chief negotiator George B. Morris (L) on July 17, 1979. The 1970s saw the beginning of a slippery slope of UAW concessions and corruption. (Bettmann / Contributor / Getty)

The 60-year descent that led to Gary Jones’ indictment.

Con­tract nego­ti­a­tions between the 400,000-strong Unit­ed Auto Work­ers and Detroit’s Big Three automak­ers always kick off the same way: with rit­u­al­ized hand­shake cer­e­monies in front of the press pool, the UAW pres­i­dent grin­ning with each automaker’s CEO.

But in 2015, the cozy rou­tine at the UAW-Chrysler Train­ing Cen­ter in Detroit devolved into an out­right dis­play of affec­tion. UAW offi­cials and Chrysler man­age­ment flanked the stage (in match­ing polo shirts fea­tur­ing inter­linked orga­ni­za­tion logos) and merged into a sea of indis­tin­guish­able fig­ures. Then, Fiat Chrysler CEO Ser­gio Mar­chionne pulled in UAW Pres­i­dent Den­nis Williams for a tight bear hug.

That night, things real­ly start­ed cooking.

The UAW team for bar­gain­ing with Chrysler, includ­ing lead nego­tia­tor and UAW vice pres­i­dent, Nor­wood Jew­ell, went out for din­ner and drinks at Lon­don Chop House, an extrav­a­gant (and his­toric) restau­rant and cig­ar lounge. Both Hen­ry Ford II and for­mer Ford (and then Chrysler) CEO Lee Iacoc­ca have been among the dap­per, A‑list reg­u­lars to enjoy whiskey high­balls there amidst the soft jazz and heavy cig­a­rette smoke. Today, the restau­rant — com­plete with work­ing rotary phone booths (local calls only) — caters to the nos­tal­gia of Motor City as the epi­cen­ter of glob­al man­u­fac­tur­ing, back when union lead­ers like Wal­ter Reuther were house­hold names.

The UAW’s night out result­ed in a hefty tab — and Chrysler foot­ed the $8,494.37 bill. That din­ner is just one of the many exam­ples of union lead­ers tak­ing pay­outs, accord­ing to a fed­er­al probe by the Depart­ment of Jus­tice. Mar­chionne, Williams, Jew­ell and at least a dozen oth­ers have been named in a long-run­ning con­spir­a­cy by Chrysler to buy off the UAW. In a Decem­ber 2018 memo, fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tors described a cul­ture of cor­rup­tion” in which lav­ish enter­tain­ment and per­son­al free­bies, all paid for by the car com­pa­ny” were the rule rather than the exception.”

The inves­ti­ga­tion also uncov­ered lucra­tive kick­back schemes among union offi­cials who award­ed con­tracts for UAW-brand­ed swag, like 58,000 gold watch­es that were left sit­ting in a ware­house. First, they would inflate an item’s on-paper cost; then, when a train­ing facil­i­ty joint­ly oper­at­ed by Gen­er­al Motors (GM) and the UAW paid for the items, they would receive some of the cost dif­fer­ence. Final­ly, mul­ti­ple union offi­cials embez­zled mil­lions from the UAW itself through fraud­u­lent pur­chas­es and reim­burse­ments to finance lav­ish lifestyles. Between 2014 and 2017, offi­cials spent over a mil­lion dol­lars of the membership’s mon­ey on resorts, golf, cig­ars, steak din­ners and liquor.

To date, three Chrysler exec­u­tives, nine union offi­cials and the wid­ow of a deceased UAW vice pres­i­dent have been con­vict­ed of crimes uncov­ered by the inves­ti­ga­tion. Just this week, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment brought charges against for­mer UAW Pres­i­dent Gary Jones, who resigned in dis­grace less than two years into his term after the union brought charges against him that could have led to his expul­sion. Court doc­u­ments sug­gest that Jones plans to plead guilty to his role in embez­zling $1.5 mil­lion in mem­bers dues and will coop­er­ate with the inves­ti­ga­tion of Williams and cur­rent UAW pres­i­dent Rory Gamble.

Right-wing anti-union pro­pa­gan­dists have been eager to weaponize this scan­dal. When Volk­swa­gen work­ers in Chat­tanooga, Tenn., were con­sid­er­ing join­ing the UAW in June 2019, the cor­po­rate-backed Cen­ter for Union Facts pur­chased bill­boards around the plant and ads in the local news­pa­per tar­get­ing the union’s his­to­ry of con­ces­sions and cor­rup­tion, and even pro­duced a video for social media fea­tur­ing a shad­owy UAW whistle­blow­er” with a voice mod­u­lat­ed to sound like a bari­tone hell demon. I would not bet on the promis­es made by the UAW that they will pro­tect you because they will even­tu­al­ly sell you down the road for their own ben­e­fit,” the voice growls over news reports about a GM plant closure.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is active­ly pur­su­ing top UAW offi­cials, has named the UAW itself as a con­spir­a­tor, set­ting the stage for a pos­si­ble gov­ern­ment takeover. The gov­ern­ment took a sim­i­lar route 30 years ago to free the Team­sters from mafia con­trol. Claim­ing that lead­ers of the 1.7 mil­lion mem­ber union had made a devil’s pact with La Cosa Nos­tra,” then‑U.S. Attor­ney Rudy Giu­liani filed suit against the Team­sters under the Rack­e­teer Influ­enced and Cor­rupt Orga­ni­za­tions Act, threat­en­ing a gov­ern­ment trustee­ship. Team­sters for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union, a rank-and-file cau­cus formed to fight con­ces­sions and cor­rup­tion, suc­cess­ful­ly cam­paigned for a dif­fer­ent solu­tion. They helped nego­ti­ate a set­tle­ment in which the union con­sti­tu­tion was changed so that top union lead­ers would be select­ed by mem­bers in a court-super­vised, one-mem­ber, one-vote elec­tion, with a joint gov­ern­ment-union board to inves­ti­gate and pros­e­cute cor­rup­tion and elec­tion irreg­u­lar­i­ties. Absent a sim­i­lar­ly strong rank-and-file move­ment in the UAW, things could turn out much worse, espe­cial­ly under a Trump administration.

While the indict­ments con­tin­ue for UAW lead­ers, rank-and-file mem­bers are left to won­der how their union — once renowned as one of the strongest and clean­est in the coun­try — got to this point, and what to do next.

A Nation Built on the Automobile

The Unit­ed States saw incred­i­ble eco­nom­ic growth in the three decades fol­low­ing the Sec­ond World War, and the UAW, more than any oth­er union, set the terms and con­di­tions of work­ers’ share of that pros­per­i­ty. The post­war econ­o­my, down to the Inter­state high­way sys­tem, was pred­i­cat­ed on that quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can prod­uct, the automobile.

At the cen­ter of this man­u­fac­tur­ing boom was Gen­er­al Motors. GM held the num­ber one spot on the first For­tune 500 list ever pub­lished, in 1955, and topped the list 37 more times over the next 45 years. GM became the largest pri­vate man­u­fac­tur­er in the world and the largest pri­vate employ­er in the Unit­ed States. With Ford and Chrysler, the Big Three automak­ers were syn­ony­mous with U.S. heavy industry.

The UAW, found­ed in 1935, had mean­while won a rep­u­ta­tion as a fight­ing union through pitched street bat­tles, plant occu­pa­tions and mil­i­tant strikes. It secured its first major con­tract, with GM, through what came to be known as the Flint sit-down strike of 1936 and 1937, in which 2,000 work­ers took over a plant and fought off armed police. Over the next decade, the union wrest­ed con­tracts from a num­ber of hos­tile and often vio­lent employ­ers, orga­niz­ing fly­ing squadrons” of brawny union­ists who pro­tect­ed strik­ers from com­pa­ny-hired thugs and police.

By 1955, the UAW had orga­nized much of the domes­tic auto indus­try, includ­ing many sup­pli­ers, and had aligned the expi­ra­tion dates of its con­tracts at all three major automak­ers. The Big Three then entered into some­thing of a gentlemen’s agree­ment: If the UAW struck a deal with any one of them, the oth­er two would match it. This pat­tern bar­gain­ing” helped the UAW estab­lish stan­dards across the entire industry.

These UAW con­tracts heav­i­ly influ­enced the stan­dards for steel, cop­per, alu­minum, rail­road, rub­ber and glass work­ers. Once the UAW won a large increase in wages or pen­sions, oth­er indus­tri­al unions, like the Steel­work­ers, could fight for the same. The ben­e­fits even trick­led down to non-union employ­ers, who would match union pay and ben­e­fits hop­ing to remove the incen­tive to orga­nize. For mil­lions of work­ers across the coun­try, the result was decades of unpar­al­leled increas­es in their stan­dard of liv­ing. The gains were espe­cial­ly sig­nif­i­cant for Black work­ers, whose num­bers grew to make up 30 per­cent of the auto man­u­fac­tur­ing work­force by the 1960s and who sought out union jobs in oth­er indus­tries in droves after the 1964 Civ­il Rights Act barred hir­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion on the basis of race, sex, reli­gion and nationality.

By the mid-1970s, how­ev­er, the post-war eco­nom­ic boom was over. High inter­est rates, ris­ing unem­ploy­ment, infla­tion, oil shocks and the influx of goods from rebuilt Euro­pean and Asian economies trig­gered the largest reces­sion since the Great Depres­sion. Cor­po­ra­tions, embold­ened by high unem­ploy­ment, went on the offen­sive. Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans alike cham­pi­oned dereg­u­la­tion and oth­er employ­er-friend­ly poli­cies, pushed by the new­ly formed Busi­ness Round­table, a polit­i­cal pow­er­house com­posed sole­ly of For­tune 500 CEOs, and new con­ser­v­a­tive think tanks and polit­i­cal action com­mit­tees. Pres­i­dent Ronald Reagan’s mer­ci­less break­ing of the air traf­fic con­trollers’ strike in 1981 broke the taboo on the per­ma­nent replace­ment of strik­ing work­ers, under­min­ing one of the most pow­er­ful tools in labor’s arse­nal. Busi­ness­es also began putting the squeeze on labor costs, forc­ing con­ces­sions from unions.

By 1979, Chrysler was at a break­ing point. It had increased pro­duc­tion in the U.S. and over­seas on vehi­cles that nobody was buy­ing, run­ning up a mas­sive debt it couldn’t repay. The U.S. gov­ern­ment bro­kered a deal to bail out Chrysler with a $1.5 bil­lion loan — on con­di­tion that the com­pa­ny rein­vent itself and come up with $2 bil­lion in sav­ings. A bil­lion of those cuts came from UAW concessions.

Soon, the oth­er two auto giants came knock­ing on the UAW’s door. Roger Smith, famed GM CEO fea­tured in Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, stat­ed blunt­ly to reporters: You can­not have a two-tier wage indus­try.” Pat­tern bar­gain­ing, in oth­er words, was not a one-way street; if Chrysler got con­ces­sions, GM expect­ed them as well.

Soon, unions in every sec­tor were flood­ed with demands for give­backs, even from prof­itable busi­ness­es. After all, who could say no to con­ces­sions if the mighty UAW had agreed?

In a 1982 Busi­ness­week sur­vey of sev­er­al hun­dred cor­po­rate exec­u­tives, one in five admit­ted that although we don’t need con­ces­sions, we are tak­ing advan­tage of the bar­gain­ing cli­mate to ask for them.” In a few short years, employ­ers dis­man­tled the post­war accord of indus­tri­al pat­tern bar­gain­ing. By 1986, the basic steel” agree­ment — which had imposed indus­try-wide wages, ben­e­fits and work­ing con­di­tions — had dis­solved; the Steel­work­ers were back to nego­ti­at­ing with each com­pa­ny indi­vid­u­al­ly. The fall­out rip­pled through­out the pri­vate sec­tor, too, in rub­ber, coal, truck­ing and rail. From that point on, com­pa­nies had no inten­tion of going back to the B.C.” era, Before Chrysler. Again, Roger Smith summed things up can­did­ly, quip­ping to the Wall Street Jour­nal that all of us are ded­i­cat­ed to keep­ing our com­pa­nies lean and mean.”

The UAW’s pat­tern agree­ment with the Big Three remained, but Chrysler, Ford and GM’s share of the domes­tic auto indus­try shrank as for­eign-owned auto com­pa­nies expand­ed in the Unit­ed States. Star­tling­ly, over the past 40 years, the UAW has been unsuc­cess­ful in orga­niz­ing any of the for­eign-owned car com­pa­nies that have locat­ed their facil­i­ties in the South, where politi­cians are hos­tile to unions (and gen­er­ous to cor­po­ra­tions through pub­lic sub­si­dies). Col­lec­tive­ly, for­eign-owned automak­ers now pro­duce more vehi­cles for the U.S. mar­ket and employ more work­ers than the Big Three com­bined, and more than 80% of the auto indus­try is non-union. As a result, the Big Three automak­ers have pushed hard, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the 2008 eco­nom­ic cri­sis and sub­se­quent auto bailouts, for the UAW to bring labor costs in line with their non-union com­peti­tors, rather than the oth­er way around.

For decades, com­pa­nies got the UAW to cave to con­ces­sions under the threat of plant clo­sures and out­sourc­ing, then went on to close plants any­way, in a vicious cycle that Priscil­la Muro­lo, pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Sarah Lawrence Col­lege, describes as a pro­tec­tion rack­et.” The employ­er says, ‘[Give] us this and we pro­tect you.’ But the crime boss keeps com­ing around and upping the cost until they burn you down. The unions were fool­ish to go along with it.”

From Sweet­heart to Subsidiary

Wal­ter Reuther, a social demo­c­rat, skilled politi­cian and savvy nego­tia­tor, was elect­ed UAW pres­i­dent in 1946. With Reuther at the helm, the Autowork­ers secured his­toric con­tracts that cre­at­ed what came to be known as the pri­vate wel­fare state,” pro­vid­ing UAW mem­bers with health insur­ance, pen­sions, sup­ple­ments to their unem­ploy­ment insur­ance and paid vaca­tions. Reuther pushed for a four-day work week as ear­ly as the 1950s, and by his untime­ly death in a plane crash in 1970, the Autowork­ers were inch­ing toward a guar­an­teed annu­al wage.

The UAW was right­ly known as a clean” union. Wal­ter and his broth­er, Vic­tor, were both injured in sep­a­rate assas­si­na­tion attempts, believed to have been ordered by mob­sters asso­ci­at­ed with union locals that the UAW was wrest­ing con­trol from.

But Reuther was also known as an ego­ma­ni­ac who would not tol­er­ate any chal­lenge to his author­i­ty. He cham­pi­oned the anti-Com­mu­nist cru­sade in the Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions as a way to purge the UAW of polit­i­cal rivals. One union activist at the time quipped to jour­nal­ist William Ser­rin that Red-bait­ing in the labor move­ment shouldn’t be referred to as McCary­thism, but Reutherism.

The UAW’s Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus emerged from Reuther’s efforts to main­tain con­trol. Orga­nized by Reuther in the late 1940s, the cau­cus has run the UAW for the past 70 years. Dis­si­dents have long described the UAW as a one-par­ty state” because of how ruth­less­ly the Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus weeds out lead­ers and staff for so-called disloyalty.

The Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus moved the UAW toward a busi­ness union” ori­en­ta­tion, in which the union focus­es nar­row­ly on nego­ti­at­ing an ever-increas­ing stan­dard of liv­ing for work­ers with­out broad­er chal­lenges to how man­age­ment runs its plants. The UAW won high wages and strong ben­e­fits, but work in auto plants remained dirty, dan­ger­ous and oppres­sive. Reuther often referred to auto fac­to­ries as gold-plat­ed sweatshops.”

Reuther dab­bled in the rhetoric of class strug­gle union­ism — the type asso­ci­at­ed with the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers or Farm Equip­ment Work­ers, which chal­lenges the very legit­i­ma­cy of man­age­ment and aspires to orga­nize the work­ing class for a world with­out boss­es — but he was a busi­ness union­ist at heart. As long as the com­pa­nies main­tained cer­tain wages and ben­e­fits, UAW lead­ers wouldn’t chal­lenge management’s author­i­ty — and would clamp down on mil­i­tant work­ers who did. When a wild­cat strike shut down Chrysler’s Mack Avenue stamp­ing plant in 1973 to protest unsafe work­ing con­di­tions, UAW Vice Pres­i­dent Doug Fras­er assem­bled a fly­ing squadron” of more than a thou­sand Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus loy­al­ists armed with base­ball bats and pipes. In an act that would have dis­mayed the Flint sit­down­ers, Fraser’s crew beat the strike lead­ers in order to smash the pick­et line, and local police per­son­al­ly thanked Fras­er for his help in keep­ing the plant humming.

Uncon­ven­tion­al sweet­hearts” is how Pulitzer Prize-win­ning his­to­ri­an Studs Terkel described the rela­tion­ship between the UAW and automak­ers. In the ear­ly 1980s, after the post­war boom was offi­cial­ly over, the Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus made a devil’s bar­gain to take the union even fur­ther down the road of busi­ness union­ism — paving the way for cor­rup­tion in the process. The UAW agreed to the con­ces­sions the Big Three were demand­ing, but want­ed joint pro­grams” in return. The joint pro­grams allowed the UAW to assign work­ers to union posi­tions away from the assem­bly line. Union dis­si­dents referred to these appointees as clip­board­ers.” From 1982 to 1986, these pro­grams dra­mat­i­cal­ly expand­ed as the union formed joint­ly admin­is­tered non-prof­it train­ing cen­ters” with each automak­er. Union offi­cials could now appoint Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus loy­al­ists to cushy desk jobs, accel­er­at­ing the growth of a large union bureau­cra­cy and pro­vid­ing the Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus with an army of patron­age posi­tions to cement its power.

The union became a labor-rela­tions arm for the com­pa­ny, and in exchange it was gift­ed the train­ing cen­ters, which were like a palace,” says Frank Ham­mer, the retired pres­i­dent of UAW Local 909 in War­ren, Mich., and a rank-and file activist. All of a sud­den there was a flood of work­ers that came out of the plants to pop­u­late these mahogany offices in down­town Detroit. They got there by prov­ing their loy­al­ty to the Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus, so of course they were the biggest yes men possible.”

The pow­er of the Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus, togeth­er with the joint fund­ing, is the real root of the cor­rup­tion we see today,” says Peter Unter­weger, a researcher who worked for the UAW from 1974 to 1991.

The large pots of joint-pro­gram mon­ey pro­vid­ed by the automak­ers also became tempt­ing sources of per­son­al and orga­ni­za­tion­al enrich­ment for UAW lead­ers. Fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tors say they have uncov­ered cor­rup­tion extend­ing back at least a decade, and tes­ti­mo­ny sug­gests longer. The facts uncov­ered to date are aston­ish­ing: As ear­ly as 2009, UAW-Chrysler Train­ing Cen­ter cred­it cards were pro­vid­ed to senior union staff, with Chrysler Vice Pres­i­dent Alphons Iaco­bel­li telling them, If you see some­thing you want, feel free to buy it.”

When the UAW lead­er­ship wasn’t tempt­ed to siphon off the joint funds, it could steal mon­ey direct­ly from the mem­bers. Accord­ing to court doc­u­ments, for­mer UAW pres­i­dents Williams and Jones were part of a cadre of offi­cials who embez­zled more than a mil­lion dol­lars from the UAW. Retired UAW activist and staff mem­ber Mike Can­non believes the com­plete dom­i­na­tion by the Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus cre­at­ed a cul­ture of impuni­ty that allowed these crimes to occur: When some­one in a one-par­ty state decides to steal mon­ey,” he says, the ten­den­cy is not to expose the cul­prit, but to cov­er it up so it doesn’t look bad on the cau­cus or the union.”

The automak­ers, mean­while, under­stood joint­ness” as a Tro­jan horse to win even deep­er cuts. This strat­e­gy was clear­ly laid out in a con­fi­den­tial 1983 inter­nal GM memo obtained by union dis­si­dent and Local 160 pres­i­dent Pete Kel­ly. Through the joint com­mit­tees, GM planned to work with top UAW lead­er­ship and the UAW’s nation­al bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee to con­vince union locals that, to keep GM plants open and com­pet­i­tive with for­eign automak­ers, it must ask for dras­tic sac­ri­fices: cut­ting 80,000 jobs over two years while main­tain­ing pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, replac­ing guar­an­teed year­ly rais­es with prof­it-based bonus­es, elim­i­nat­ing cost-of-liv­ing adjust­ments and insti­tut­ing health insur­ance co-pay­ments — and insti­tut­ing mul­ti­ple wage tiers, mean­ing work­ers in the same job role would have dif­fer­ent wage ceil­ings, based on their hire date.

In a let­ter accom­pa­ny­ing a copy of the report to UAW Pres­i­dent Owen Bieber, Kel­ly sar­don­ical­ly not­ed that tiers were some­thing Roger Smith could not accept in the indus­try” back when Chrysler received more con­tract con­ces­sions than GM. In Smith’s eyes, it seemed, it was accept­able for a con­tract to favor one tier of work­ers over anoth­er, but not one automak­er over another.

GM has won many of these demands in the decades since and UAW mem­ber­ship has plum­met­ed as the Big Three shut­tered and off­shored plants, sped up lines and intro­duced more automa­tion. Its mem­ber­ship peaked in 1979 at 1.5 mil­lion, but today stands just under 400,000.

Decades of con­ces­sions obvi­ous­ly have not saved jobs, yet UAW offi­cials con­tin­ue to argue for their neces­si­ty. Despite the pre­cip­i­tous drop in dues, the union bureau­cra­cy has been sus­tained through the joint pro­grams. When that fund­ing didn’t suf­fice to keep the UAW afloat, the automak­ers stepped in. In 2014, Chrysler fun­neled mil­lions of dol­lars through the train­ing cen­ter to the UAW as a polit­i­cal gift” to cov­er the short­fall, pay­ing the salaries of numer­ous union offi­cials over sev­er­al years.

And all of this was done with the goal, accord­ing to one Chrysler offi­cial, of keep­ing UAW lead­ers fat, dumb and happy.”

Rebels in the Ranks

The UAW’s embrace of con­ces­sions did not go unchal­lenged. In 1982, activists from 37 locals held a nation­al con­ven­tion in Flint, Mich., to form Locals Opposed to Con­ces­sions, which grew into the move­ment to Restore and More in 84,” demand­ing the automak­ers restore all con­ces­sions the UAW had made.

The dis­si­dents’ sus­pi­cion that the UAW lead­er­ship was giv­ing away the farm was con­firmed in ear­ly 1984 when Kel­ly obtained the smok­ing gun GM memo, which paint­ed UAW lead­ers as eager accom­plices to GM’s cuts. Why are we hold­ing hands with those bas­tards when they are plot­ting our demise?” Kel­ly exclaimed to the press after the report was made public.

Cana­di­an activists were heav­i­ly involved in these move­ments through the Cana­di­an sec­tion of the UAW. The UAW lead­er­ship would come up here and tell us that if we didn’t accept con­ces­sions then the com­pa­ny will go bank­rupt,” recalls Sam Gindin, direc­tor of research for the Cana­di­an UAW and lat­er the inde­pen­dent Cana­di­an Auto Work­ers. We thought that if we gave con­ces­sions then the com­pa­nies would just ask for more and the work­force would become demor­al­ized.” When the con­ces­sions con­tin­ued, the Cana­di­ans broke away and formed the CAW in 1985.

Gindin and CAW Pres­i­dent Bob White remained con­nect­ed to the rank-and-file move­ment in the Unit­ed States through UAW dis­si­dent Jer­ry Tuck­er, even finan­cial­ly back­ing his direc­tor­ship elec­tion campaign.

Tuck­er, a line work­er who became a tal­ent­ed staff orga­niz­er, helped found the New Direc­tions Move­ment, a rank-and-file cau­cus cre­at­ed by more than 100 UAW Region 5 activists in 1986. The group aimed to fight con­ces­sions, end joint­ness and man­date direct elec­tions for the UAW’s top lead­er­ship — and hoped to elect Tuck­er to the Region 5 direc­tor­ship, which cov­ered eight West­ern and South­west­ern states and 80,000 members.

When Tuck­er announced his can­di­da­cy, the Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus declared war on him,” says Mike Can­non, who worked close­ly with Tuck­er for many years and would lat­er serve as his region­al assis­tant. The UAW fired Tuck­er from his staff job, so he lived off his sav­ings as he ran his cam­paign for region­al director.

The Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus pulled out all the stops, arrang­ing sev­er­al fraud­u­lent votes that cost Tuck­er a vic­to­ry by two-tenths of a sin­gle vote (some very small UAW locals cast only frac­tion­al votes). After the Depart­ment of Labor con­firmed fraud had occurred, Tuck­er won a make­up elec­tion — but UAW staff mem­bers appoint­ed by lead­er­ship in Detroit vowed to spend the remain­der of Tucker’s term, just one year, cam­paign­ing against him, and he lost his reelection.

The New Direc­tions Move­ment con­tin­ued to make waves through the 1990s as rank-and-file activists won elec­tions in their locals and chal­lenged the automak­ers’ demands for con­ces­sions, but they were nev­er able to over­come the strength of the Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus and win anoth­er seat on the Inter­na­tion­al Exec­u­tive Board. Sub­se­quent rank-and-file orga­niz­ing attempts failed to gain the same reach and depth as New Directions.

Mem­ber­ship Says No”

The UAW’s bar­gain­ing team returned to the Lon­don Chop House for anoth­er opu­lent meal two months after their July 2015 vis­it, this time to cel­e­brate a ten­ta­tive agree­ment with Chrysler. Joined by then-Pres­i­dent Den­nis Williams, the group ran up a $6,912.81 bill — all of it paid for by their nego­ti­at­ing adver­sary. But even the best-laid schemes have flaws, and Chrysler had over­looked an impor­tant one: Con­tracts must still be rat­i­fied by union members.

The Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus had pre­vi­ous­ly beat­en efforts to vote down con­tracts by warn­ing that the com­pa­ny would take its jobs else­where should the con­tract fail. But dis­con­tent in the Chrysler plants had got­ten so bad that the pro­posed con­tract pro­voked a groundswell of resis­tance. About 45 per­fect of the Chrysler work­force were sec­ond-tier work­ers,” work­ers hired after 2007 who received low­er pay and worse ben­e­fits than oth­ers in the same role. Unlike first-tier work­ers, for exam­ple, they will not receive retiree health­care or pen­sions. Most autowork­ers want­ed the UAW to end the despised two-tier sys­tem by bridg­ing the gap” and mov­ing all work­ers up to the same wages and ben­e­fits. The ten­ta­tive con­tract did none of this, and activists called it a bridge to nowhere.”

At a meet­ing to sell the deal to Chrysler local offi­cials, UAW pres­i­dent Williams declared that end­ing two-tier is bull­shit,” recalls George Win­dau, 68, a for­mer skilled trades com­mit­tee­man for Local 12. He was clear that it would nev­er happen.”

Then, the unthink­able did hap­pen: For the first time in more than 30 years, Chrysler autowork­ers vot­ed down a con­tract. Stunned union lead­ers were forced back to the bar­gain­ing table, return­ing with a new con­tract that pro­vid­ed an eight-year pro­gres­sion for sec­ond-tier work­ers to reach top pay.

Today, the union is fac­ing the most seri­ous rebel­lion in its ranks since Jer­ry Tuck­er and New Direc­tions: Unite All Work­ers for Democ­ra­cy, or UAWD, a new rank-and-file move­ment found­ed in response to the con­ces­sions and the scan­dals rock­ing UAW leadership.

The UAWD comes out of the rebel ener­gy gen­er­at­ed by the record-set­ting fall 2019 strike. In per­haps a tac­ti­cal mis­take for main­tain­ing its own pow­er, the union’s lead­er­ship called a strike at GM in mid-Sep­tem­ber in the midst of con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. Rank-and-file crit­ics believe that union lead­ers feared anoth­er mem­ber revolt over the remain­ing tiers, as well as the ris­ing num­ber of tem­po­rary work­ers and the cor­rup­tion charges, so UAW offi­cials called a strike as a way to redi­rect mem­ber anger and reestab­lish cred­i­bil­i­ty. 46,000 UAW mem­bers suc­cess­ful­ly shut down pro­duc­tion at Gen­er­al Motors, still the country’s largest automak­er, for six weeks — despite the lack of any clear pub­lic con­tract demands, an orga­nized con­tract cam­paign, or sig­nif­i­cant strike prepa­ra­tion by UAW lead­er­ship. It was the longest nation­al autowork­er strike in almost 50 years.

While the union mem­bers made a hero­ic effort to dis­rupt their employer’s busi­ness, the final agree­ment ham­mered out by lead­er­ship at the bar­gain­ing table made only slight gains and did lit­tle to alter the mas­sive decline in wages and ben­e­fits that work­ers have sus­tained over decades.

The GM con­tract passed with a slim major­i­ty — only 57 per­cent vot­ed to pass it, due, at least in part, to the fact that many work­ers didn’t believe UAW lead­er­ship would do any better.

Like many of the teach­ers who jump­start­ed strikes in red states in 2018 and 2019, the UAWD was cre­at­ed by activists, most­ly from the Big Three, who found each oth­er online and began orga­niz­ing dur­ing the GM strike.

Through Face­book groups, we found peo­ple who were inter­est­ed in reform­ing the union, end­ing cor­rup­tion and orga­niz­ing the mem­ber­ship,” says Travis Watkins, 47, a bar­gain­ing chair for Local 167 in Wyoming, Mich. UAWD orga­niz­ers chat dai­ly over Face­book mes­sen­ger, orga­nize reg­u­lar con­fer­ence calls, and are plan­ning their first nation­al meet­ing, where they will meet in per­son for the first time, at the 2020 Labor Notes Con­fer­ence in April.

The group’s first orga­niz­ing goal is to break the hold of the Admin­is­tra­tion Cau­cus by chang­ing to a one-mem­ber, one-vote sys­tem to elect top offi­cers. To alter the elec­toral sys­tem, locals rep­re­sent­ing 79,000 mem­bers must pass a res­o­lu­tion to hold a spe­cial con­ven­tion where such a change could be enact­ed. As of this writ­ing, 20 locals rep­re­sent­ing more than 45,000 mem­bers have done so.

The mem­ber­ship is the high­est author­i­ty in the union, and we’re orga­niz­ing so we can start act­ing like it,” says Chris Bud­nick, 34, an activist at Ford’s Ken­tucky Truck Plant and a found­ing mem­ber of UAWD.

In the longer term, UAWD hopes to piv­ot the union away from the failed ide­ol­o­gy of a labor-man­age­ment part­ner­ship and back to the UAW’s mil­i­tant roots.

Forty years of joint pro­grams has led to the loss of a mil­lion union jobs, so what do we do?” asks Bud­nick. We have to learn how to stop the damn lines again.”

Chris Brooks is a staff writer and labor edu­ca­tor at Labor Notes, where he cov­ers the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers. He is a mem­ber of the Nation­al Writ­ers Union (UAW Local 1981).
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue