I am worrying that members may resign from the United Auto Workers because they see no way to overcome the union’s problems. Leaving the union would be a disaster for those individuals and for all their brothers and sisters. Better to stay in the union and force it to change.
Here is a short list of reform suggestions:
- One-person-one-vote for critical decisions
- End nepotism
- No staffer control over membership deliberations
- Join the rest of the labor movement, especially in politics
- Full disclosure and cooperation with the membership
- Meetings in most economical venues
- Put “joint” activities under the same rigorous accounting oversight as regular union activities
- Hold meetings in economical venues
The Longer Explanation
The new acting President of the United Auto Workers (UAW) is named Rory Gamble. His peers on the International Executive Board asked him to take over after they pressured the elected president, Gary Jones, to take a paid leave of absence. On UAW.org, Gamble writes: “…I know recent events concerning members of our leadership have disappointed and angered many of you….”
He is referring to federal indictments against a number of active and retired top union leaders and published allegations against some more, including Gary Jones. Newspapers also reveal that other former leaders are testifying in the federal investigation. Charges and allegations include embezzlement, corruption, and money laundering. Two former top staffers published an op-ed calling for the entire leadership to be fired.
The specifics in the newspaper articles say that union officials could not account for money spent on wrist watches, golf fees, expensive cigars, and fine liquors. I’d like to come back to that.
Union Busters and Their Friends
In these times, no one should be surprised to learn that the government is trying to destroy the UAW and its leaders. No one should be surprised that the corporate media is doing all they can toward that same end.
What is surprising is the commentary that follows the news releases. Writers who say they are union members are buying into the anti-union onslaught wholeheartedly. When Gary Jones stepped down, for instance, hardly anyone wrote on social media about whether or not he had actually done anything wrong. Almost all of the comments, instead, were calling for his head. The mildest among them were saying that his salary should be cut off immediately. This is before any official charges have been filed.
What Makes Unionists Anti-Union?
Some union problems are built in, even when the union is working well.
Union servicing reps and negotiators know that their efforts are unlikely to please any union member without pissing off another one. If the union wins a raise for someone, for example, someone else demands to know why they didn’t get the same raise, or a higher one.
The published results of union ratification votes in the recent General Motors strike reveal that 42% of those voting did not like the contract offer well enough to accept it. They must have known that they were voting to continue the grueling strike, but they bravely voted against the offer anyway. After the other 58% ratified the contract, that 42% was certain to be discontent. It’s built in to contract negotiations that somebody will be glad and somebody else will be mad.
In enforcing union contracts, servicing reps spend a lot of time, maybe the majority of their time, helping the very worst members. A worker who stays sober and comes to work on time regularly may not see his/her servicing rep for months on end. The drunk who screws up has the servicing rep on speed dial. There’s really no way around that.
When the union is working well, seniority is strictly observed. The first people to get promotions and raises are the ones that have been on the job longest. The first ones laid off are the newest. There’s no way around that, either, because the alternative would be to let the boss decide, and he will go with his nephew every time! But seniority creates a built-in problem for unions, especially during times like the last few decades, when more people are getting laid off than hired and the membership keeps aging.
Unions aren’t revolutionary. Hot-blooded young members with high ideals and little to lose are always wanting their union to take on and destroy the establishment. They are always disappointed because unions don’t want to destroy companies or systems. They just want better treatment for their members. It’s built in.
But There are Preventable Problems
Unions became increasingly isolated after the 1947 Taft Hartley law was passed over President Truman’s veto. The progressives in the union movement were kicked out en masse. The conservative union leaders then embraced “business unionism.” They stopped struggling for social programs like shorter working hours, increased Social Security, and national health care. Instead, they bought management’s suggestions for company-provided pensions and health care. The UAW, in what is often called the “Treaty of Detroit,” led the charge backward.
Most union members were glad. They started seeing their wages, pensions, and health care get better and better while people without unions could only enjoy a residual effect. Union officers learned to play golf with management while growing more and more isolated, not only from the working class at large, but from their own members. In the long run, it was a recipe for disaster, but in the short run, during America’s great post-war boom, it worked great for the members. To this day, many union members think the leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were some kind of geniuses.
Membership fell steadily after 1957. Disaffection, separation of union leaders from everybody else, grew worse. Membership participation in union meetings declined. Leadership became increasingly opportunist. That is, they took UAW staff jobs because they were really good jobs, not out of any commitment to the union (witness them today hurrying to testify for the union-busters). Nepotism is one of the uglier aspects of opportunism, and it is weakening the UAW.
Then came Reagan
By the late 1970s, the United States began to lose its economic hegemony over the rest of the world. Other industrial nations rebuilt the factories that were bombed flat during the war, and they started producing products that were as good or better, and often cheaper, than those made in the United States. Little foreign cars, for example, became quite trendy in America.
In the presidential election of 1980, the employers committed to a solid plan to drive down unit labor costs in America. They found an excellent spokesperson and mobilized the government, the media, and most of the establishment around him. With government help, they shipped the best American manufacturing jobs overseas. They automated jobs away. They busted unions when they could and passed anti-union legislation at every opportunity.
Unions, who had completely forgotten about the historic fight to shorten working hours in response to automation, bled members. Some of them tried to adapt through strategic mergers with other unions and by innovative approaches to organizing. A few of them did OK, but the UAW wasn’t one of them. Membership fell from 1,500,000 to around 400,000.
The UAW responded to the Reagan assault mostly by embracing the “Big 3” auto companies and declaring that the enemies of the union were not managers but, rather, were foreign workers, especially the very successful Japanese. They pushed “buy union-made cars,” without mentioning that most of the foreign auto companies were unionized. They immersed themselves into company-led “jointness” ventures and “team” production. Union editors were encouraged, even directed, to give up their union newspapers and join forces with management.
One result was that “joint” ventures created opportunities for corruption, and one direct result of that is some of the UAW leaders now in jail or under indictment. They are charged with stealing funds that were designated for joint training programs that had poor fiscal accountability.
The other result, far worse, was that UAW leaders were more than ever isolated from the members. Instead of interacting with members at work, they built a hierarchy of union staffers around them that completed their isolation. The union staffers, who have their own separate staff union, continued to get the best that the UAW could offer, while members’ wages and benefits eroded away.
One could argue that the UAW staffers, not the members, run the union. It is true that the UAW still has a good democratic constitution with regular elections and constitutional conventions. The problem with those conventions is that they are orchestrated by the staff. While some unions prohibit staffers from even being on their convention floor, UAW staffers literally lean over every delegation during conventions. Hardly anything happens at UAW conventions that was not planned out in advance by the top UAW leaders and executed by their paid staffers.
About Those Cigars
Readers of the many anti-UAW articles may have wondered what union leaders might have been doing with all those expensive cigars, golf fees, watches and bottles of liquor that they were supposed to have stolen. They couldn’t have worn that many wrist watches. They couldn’t have drunk and smoked that much while playing that much golf. The answer is pretty obvious. They probably used luxury items to guarantee, through small bribes, the continuing loyalty of the legions of staffers.
We end up with the situation in the UAW today. A significant number of union members are so confused and alienated that they actually vote for their own executioners. Others, possibly with the best of intentions and highest motives, are joining the media call for destroying the union!
On the Upside
No one should overlook the fact that the General Motors workers were able to carry out a successful 6-week strike even while the biggest and sharpest union-busting effort since the McCarthy period was directed against them. No one should overlook the fact that the UAW still has 400,000 intelligent members and several hundred million dollars. No one should overlook the fact that the UAW has one of the proudest and most progressive histories in America. No one should fail to notice that the American people are becoming more and more aware of just who their real enemies are and how to fight back. That’s a lot to build on.
Short-term Solutions for the UAW
It isn’t likely that President Rory Gamble is going to be able to pull the union together with a few worn platitudes about “solidarity in the ranks” and “a few bad apples.” Even if union leaders survive the government investigation, their alienation from the membership will continue to eat the union away.
There are two guys who think they have found a section of the UAW constitution allowing for the members to call a special convention and elect new leadership. They have a Facebook page with 12,000 likes. The two guys are arguing that members should join their effort rather than doing what has become almost traditional – “voting with their feet” – and leaving the union.
I hope they can pull it off, because it might help keep our union together. But just holding a new convention under the same old system isn’t really a long-term reform. For example, the convention delegates are already elected. Under the UAW Constitution, they are the same ones that attended the last convention, and they will be sitting in front of the exact same staffers.
Our union needs an entirely new attitude toward its members. Staffers must stop subverting our democracy. Members must be consulted and listened to. Top-down thinking must go.
The union also needs a new attitude toward the public. More and better communications are needed. “Go it alone” must be condemned as a union strategy and “solidarity with all workers” must become our new guideline. We need to completely get rid of our isolated, separate, political program and join with the other unions in the AFL-CIO.
The United Auto Workers, once the most progressive and democratic union, must take its place again at the head of this wonderful new progressive movement that is sweeping America.