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

Chris Brooks March 5, 2020

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).
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