However, given one last opportunity to save their union in the weeks prior to the plant’s closing, 757 Belvidere employees—3 percent of the whole town’s population—voted for Shawn Fain in contests for the union’s top leadership.
A new movement called Unite All Workers for Democracy was born out of this situation.
Local 2069 of Volvo workers in Virginia went on and off strike for three months, with its leadership forcing them to approve practically identical contracts four times while repeating management’s justifications for workers to compromise.
Over the course of a five-week strike, John Deere employees in Local 838 rejected two contracts and, by standing their ground against their employers and the negotiation team, rejected a new tier and reclaimed a cost-of-living increase.
With barely 10% of the workforce being represented by unions, America lacks the kind of strong labour party that is prevalent in Europe.
In February, the Stellantis Belvidere Assembly Plant produced its final Jeep Cherokee. In December, the business made the decision to shut down the Illinois factory permanently, putting an end to the gradual loss of almost 5000 employment over the previous five years. The 25,000-person town of Belvidere was already suffering from the aftereffects of the plant’s closure, but this most recent blow promised to be the last straw for what was left of the community’s economy. It’s possible that the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 1268 members had lost hope in their union. After all, the UAW took no action when Stellantis revealed its decision; after all, just a few months earlier, the two parties had been in discussions regarding whether the plant would be converted to the production of electric vehicles.
However, given one last opportunity to save their union in the weeks prior to the plant’s closing, 757 Belvidere employees—3 percent of the whole town’s population—voted for Shawn Fain in contests for the union’s top leadership. Fain ran against Ray Curry, the current president of the UAW, with a plan to create a more democratic, combative organization. The 757 employees believe their other union members will support them in fighting against Belvidere’s closure if given the opportunity during the following round of discussions with Stellantis.
UAW members cast their votes directly for the top leadership for the first time in the union’s history. Before this year, about 900 local leaders who serve as delegates chose the International Executive Board. The Administration Caucus has governed the UAW for decades and has long utilised its power over appointed positions and other privileges to encourage loyalty. The delegates consistently picked candidates from this group. Fain, a former supervisor at the Stellantis Kokomo Casting Plant and one of the only appointed staff members to publicly oppose concessionary contracts in 2009 and 2011, as well as the full slate of Members United candidates he campaigned alongside, were, however, elected by the membership when given the chance.
On March 27, Fain gave his first statement to the union, declaring “war against our one and only true enemy: multibillion-dollar corporations,” in front of the Special Bargaining Convention in Detroit. The audience’s reaction was varied: some tipped their heads and crossed their arms, while others clapped unwillingly and yelled wildly. The majority of the delegates there had endorsed Curry, Fain’s rival who had the backing of the Administration Caucus, and they were worried about any prospective change to the UAW.
Delegates have been accustomed to a message that is much more pro-business over time, such as Vice President Cindy Estrada’s pitch to businesses at the most recent Special Bargaining Convention in 2019: “You can build a plant right here in the city of Detroit with union wages and still make a profit.” Estrada supported “business unionism,” which has controlled organised labour since the 1950s, when UAW President Walter Reuther rose to prominence and established the Administration Caucus.
No union communicates its story better than the UAW, despite the fact that business unionism pervaded the entire AFL-CIO. Reuther and General Motors (GM) negotiated the “Treaty of Detroit” in 1950, establishing a new labour-management agreement in which long-term contracts were exchanged for better pay, pensions, and health benefits in exchange for demands for worker control over production (such as the ability to resist speed-ups and automation). Similar deals would soon be negotiated by Reuther with GM, Ford, and Chrysler (formerly Stellantis), collectively known as the “Big Three.” With this ceasefire, management and employees were both guaranteed a share of the expanding pie. In addition, it established a system where UAW leaders would coordinate with foremen to quell employee discontent.
Business unionism would later show to be just as contradictory in practise as it is in principle. The firms sought concessions when faced with declining profit rates and the threat of bankruptcy, which caused workers to fight against speed-ups and racial discrimination, and this put pressure on union officials from the bottom up.
The businesses made more of an effort, and history curved in favour of money. The Big Three ceased following the rules, but the UAW leadership remained steadfast in its labour-management agreement, which was based on shared benefits from rising productivity. Outsourcing and plant closures took a 650,000-member bite out of the 1.5 million-member union throughout the 1980s. Attempting to live up to the maxim that Estrada would continue to preach 40 years later: Companies can generate a profit with union workers, union officials largely turned a blind eye to speed-ups and layoffs and consented to plant closures and wage cuts.
A call for shared sacrifice replaced the promise of shared gains. The UAW was often urged to make the labour of its members more “competitive” by the Big Three, who were steadily losing market share to foreign automakers. A race to the bottom was being fueled by the tensions between the majority of American auto workers and a burgeoning nonunion workforce that was focused in Asia, Mexico, and the American South.
In 2007, union officials once more ceded, severely splitting even the little portion of the worldwide workers in the auto manufacturing industry that they had vowed to protect. They were able to carve off this new “tier” of membership from the pension plan as part of the agreement they reached with the Big Three, which also permitted the company to hire a small number of new employees at a rate that was half that of current members. The UAW consented to lift the cap on the proportion of its employees that could be hired at the second tier when GM and Chrysler declared bankruptcy in 2009. What began as a leak grew into a huge hole.
This two-tier arrangement benefited the businesses in two ways: it reduced long-term labour expenses to the level of nonunion labour while also causing rifts within the union. Given that the union’s leaders have reiterated their second-tier status in three rounds of negotiating since 2007, it’s not surprising that the majority of younger workers have completely quit the union.
By 2019, it was well known that UAW officials had been using union funds for trips and luxury purchases for years while collecting bribes from the firm. The corruption issue was finally exposed by a federal inquiry, which resulted in the conviction of 12 union officials, including the former president Gary Jones and his immediate predecessor Dennis Williams, as well as three former Stellantis executives. The settlement also required a membership vote on whether to use the current delegate system or have direct elections to determine top leadership.
A new movement called Unite All Workers for Democracy was born out of this situation. (UAWD). Workers from the UAW’s traditional base in manufacturing were combined with those from white-collar industries like higher education under the guise of membership control. (where the UAW has achieved most of its membership growth in recent years). They understood that the same business unionism that had brought about concessions had also given rise to corruption and marginalisation. The UAWD fought for “One Member, One Vote” in 2021 because they saw direct elections as a chance to take on the Administration Caucus and revive a fighting union. The majority of members voted in favour of democracy, and the nascent reformers took advantage of the opportunity to run their own slate, led by Fain.
A vote on decades of business unionism was held at the elections. The goal of UAWD was to persuade members that there might be a genuine alternative to the Administration Caucus and that the UAWD activists they put together on the Members United slate were just the people to lead it. No Corruption. No Concessions. No Tiers. was the theme of Members United, and it resonated with members across the union, garnering support from the majority of members in seven of the nine areas.
Although one pundit naively attributed the election to a surge of radical graduate students, the statistics reveal otherwise. In actuality, only 2.5% of Fain’s support came from graduate student employees. The locals where Fain won by a landslide show an interesting map, but not one with sectoral divisions. Instead, they focus on contemporary struggles faced by union members in the rank and file, which frequently fell afoul of the business-unionist tendencies at every level of UAW leadership.
Local 2069 of Volvo workers in Virginia went on and off strike for three months, with its leadership forcing them to approve practically identical contracts four times while repeating management’s justifications for workers to compromise. Over the course of a five-week strike, John Deere employees in Local 838 rejected two contracts and, by standing their ground against their employers and the negotiation team, rejected a new tier and reclaimed a cost-of-living increase. These employees are striving for a UAW that is led by its members and unafraid to confront employers.
The Big Three contract expiring in September will be the first significant test for the new leadership. As they attempt to mobilise union resources towards a worker-led contract fight, Fain and other reformers, from the IEB down to the rank and file, will encounter pushback from a well established bureaucracy at every turn. However, this strategy’s danger also serves as its strength because workers’ initiative will be necessary for success.
This summer, employees won’t only be taking matters into their own hands; others will as well. The 350 000 UPS employees who are covered by the Teamsters and who just elected reformers to the top leadership positions are getting ready for a potential strike when their contract expires on July 31. Ending their own two-tier structure is at the top of UPS employees’ lists, just like it is for UAW employees. And during the past year, unionisation among businesses other than traditional employers has skyrocketed, from Amazon to Starbucks to Trader Joe’s.
Why doesn’t socialism exist in the United States is a question that German economist and sociologist Werner Sombart posed more than a century ago. Since then, many have wondered. It’s possible that the struggles of organised labour are a part of the solution. With barely 10% of the workforce being represented by unions, America lacks the kind of strong labour party that is prevalent in Europe. Despite this, unions like the UAW, which have enormous membership lists and well-padded financial accounts, continue to be potentially strong actors.
In most of the world, labour has long offered an audience and a language for criticising centralised power. In this nation, that political possibility has been curtailed—not just by the size of unions, but also by their nature. Recent years have seen a socialist become the country’s most well-liked politician, and probably the largest demonstrations in support of Black lives in American history. Workers in both old and new industries would benefit from reviving their militancy if (and this is still a big if) they can put an end to business unionism. Old hierarchies may be in danger and old stabilities may be fraying from various angles.