UAW president backs delegate system in election referendum

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

United Auto Workers President Ray Curry said Thursday he supports the continuation of the current delegate system used to select international leaders of the union.

The UAW is slated to hold a referendum vote starting in October over whether the union's constitution should be amended to allow for the direct election of the governing 12-member International Executive Board. It is part of a consent decree with the federal government following a years-long investigation into union corruption that resulted in the conviction of 15 people, including two former UAW presidents.

United Auto Workers President Ray Curry said on Thursday during a virtual media roundtable he advocates for the currently used delegate system used to elect international UAW leaders.

"We believe the current delegate system represents every local union around the country having the ability to elect their respective delegates to attend a constitutional convention event and also bargaining convention and as the need may arise under the constitution, emergency meetings that would need to be facilitated whether it was nationally or within a respective region," Curry said during a virtual webinar with a virtual UAW background. "We believe that is key and essential, and we would advocate for that to continue to be in process.”

Curry made the remarks during his first media roundtable since becoming president of the 400,000-member union last month following the retirement of Rory Gamble. The discussion included Curry stating that the UAW is advocating for COVID-19 vaccines and disclosures to remain voluntary for its members.

Curry's comments on the referendum come after the UAW's court-appointed monitor, New York attorney Neil Barofsky, earlier this month released the interim rules for the referendum. They state no UAW resources can be used to advocate either way in the referendum vote per federal law.

The rules do note: "Advocacy for a position on the Referendum question — through oral or written speech — cannot be conducted on union or employer time (including during union meetings or training events)."

However, they go on to state: "The Interim Rules do not prevent Union officers and employees from advocating a position on the Referendum outside of working hours. Any official or employee doing so should be careful to document that these efforts are outside of working hours in order to be able to justify these efforts if there is a future inquiry. For the purposes of the Interim Rules, 'incidental' advocacy is not prohibited, such as responding to a direct question or statement regarding the Referendum, or correcting a misstatement. However, if such a response is protracted or otherwise interferes with the work of the Union, it may be deemed as advocacy using Union resources."

It is up to the monitor to define improper advocacy "whether by word of mouth or otherwise" and investigate reports of such violations, according to the rules. The Detroit News left an inquiry with the monitor regarding Curry's statements.

"President Curry responded to a direct question indicating his support of the referendum process and his opinion on the issue to answer the question posed," UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said in a statement.

Scott Houldieson, chair of the United All Workers for Democracy caucus within the UAW that supports "one member, one vote" elections, said he feels every local is not represented in the current delegate-based system, because not all locals send delegates to the conventions where the candidates supported by the currently in-power Administrative Caucus have almost always won for the past 70 years.

"If President Curry was acting in his official capacity as president, it seems that would be in violation of the rules to advocate one way or another in a press conference," Houldieson said. "The fact that they are interim rules is troublesome because the UAW is obviously wanting the ability to speak officially against the referendum's one member, one vote, and Ray Curry just did that today."

In creating the rules. the UAW and U.S. Labor Department's Office of Labor-Management Standards reached an impasse over whether the union can use its resources to advocate for one side or another. The UAW continues to work with the U.S. Justice Department over the possibility of limited or monitored use of its resources, according to the interim rules.

"The UAW is currently working with the monitor and the various governmental agencies on the rules and the process for the referendum vote," Curry said. "There will be more to share when the rules in the process are finalized, and we'll certainly keep you updated."

Curry said he has had several discussions with Barofsky since his appointment in May. He characterized them as "professional, open and quite constructive."

In addition to implementing the consent decree and making ethics reforms, Curry said members' safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing cases from the delta variant remain a top concern. The UAW worked with the Detroit Three automakers to reinstitute a mask mandate at their plants earlier this month.

This week, President Joe Biden called on businesses and schools to mandate vaccinations following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's full approval of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer Inc. But Curry said employers with UAW-represented workers have not reached out about requiring the vaccine of UAW members.

"Our position has been from the onset of the pandemic that we see voluntary efforts when the vaccine was available, and we would encourage our members to get vaccinated," Curry said. "We would also encourage our members to please consider after the six or eight months respectively, that they would consider a booster vaccination, but our ultimate goal because of so many different reasons, whether that be religious or whether it be personal preference or medical, is that we would respect the wishes of our membership."

That request for voluntary guidelines rather than mandates also goes for employers asking UAW members to disclose whether they have been vaccinated, said Curry, who said vaccination status is protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services states on its website, however: "If an employer asks an employee to provide proof that they have been vaccinated, that is not a HIPAA violation, and employees may decide whether to provide that information to their employer."

The UAW is not tracking vaccination rates of its employees or membees. Companies like Ford Motor Co. are asking employees to voluntarily disclose that information. General Motors Co. said Wednesday it is requiring disclosure of salaried employees' vaccination status.

Curry added there have been not been any major outbreaks at auto plants, though some "incremental situations" have occurred.

The UAW itself is not reopening its Detroit headquarters until 2022, Curry said.

Looking ahead, Curry said advocating for investments in electric vehicle infrastructure and training on the new technology for UAW members remain priorities. The organization also is hoping to unionize plants making EV battery cells — whether connected with an automaker or not — and semiconductors.

The UAW, however, has not committed to the 40% to 50% EV sales goal by 2030 to which the Detroit Three automakers made a nonbinding commitment earlier this month at the White House.

"I think it's important for us and important for our membership to understand that we were not locked in to hardline percentage numbers," Curry said. "That's always been important, but we're not going to sit on the sidelines and debate the issue. We are going to be part of the discussion. We're going to be engaged in the process. We're going to be engaged in the new technology that's being brought forth to each one of the locations where our membership is building these facilities and building the actual vehicles. We want to be part of that.

"So, as we're continuing to build internal combustion engines and other related vehicles, we want to be part of the new vehicles that will be built at a number of wonderful locations around the country. That's important for us to be part of that initiative and part of the transformation. If not, we actually would not be doing what we truly are here for, and that's representing the best interest of the UAW members of the automotive sector and all the other sectors that we represent across the country."

The UAW on Thursday announced James Harris will lead its Region 1 after delegates from local unions elected the region's assistant director to fill the vacancy left by Frank Stuglin, who is now secretary-treasurer since Curry was appointed president.

James Harris has been elected director of United Auto Workers Region 1.

“Our focus will continue to be on representing and servicing our members and creating a family of solidarity to achieve gains in our contracts and grow our union," Harris said in a statement.

Region 1 covers the Michigan counties of Huron, Lapeer, Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair, Sanilac, Tuscola and part of Wayne, including Detroit, as well as Canadian UAW locals. Harris has been assistant director of the region since being elected in June 2018.

“We built a strong program that focuses on a member-based approach,” Stuglin said in a statement. “James Harris will continue that Region 1 legacy of putting members and retirees first.”

Harris hails from UAW Local 1700, which represents workers at Stellantis NV's Sterling Heights Assembly Plant. He started there 1994 and was elected chief steward in 1999, moving up the ranks to shop chairman. He became an international representative in 2012.

“Director Harris brings a wealth of bargaining knowledge and focus on representing our members in the workplace,” Curry said in a statement. “He brings a strong background in local union operations, and an understanding of the mechanics of contract implementation which will benefit the International Executive Board as a whole.

Harris resides with his wife, Sandy, in Oxford, Michigan, and they have three grown children.

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble