UAW members advocate for, against direct elections in virtual forum

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Amendments to the United Auto Workers union's constitution will be crafted if members vote to implement a direct election of leaders, UAW monitor Neil Barofsky said Thursday.

UAW members had the chance to advocate for or against the proposal during a virtual forum hosted by the monitor ahead of ballots being sent out starting Oct. 19 for the referendum on whether to maintain the current delegate-based system or institute "one-member, one-vote" elections.

Members in favor of the implementation of direct elections called for accountability and change, while others expressed concerns about the potential for corruption from campaign contributions.

"Does the current delegate system need reform? It absolutely needs reform," said Craig Leavitt, a retiree of Local 659 in Flint. "My biggest fear is that the same dark money that today plagues our U.S. body politic will be influencing our union body politic and the International Executive Board will be bought and paid for by dark money."

The language of the referendum has not yet been shared publicly. An amendment to the constitution would be crafted with the UAW only if the referendum passes, said Barofsky, a New York attorney. They would consider feedback from members and look to best practices from other unions with similar election structures.

Any amendments would require approval by delegates at the constitutional convention next year. It's not clear, based on the consent decree reached between the UAW and the Justice Department, what would happen if the delegates turned down the amendments.

"We can't tell you what it's going to look like yet, because that process doesn't begin unless and until direct voting is passed in this referendum," Barofsky said.

Barofsky also clarified that the interim rules that ban the use of UAW resources to advocate for or against the referendum do not prevent members from "neutral" advocacy such as informing members about the referendum or what to do if they do not receive a ballot, which must be returned — not postmarked — by Nov. 29.

Some members expressed concerns that they don't know what they are voting for: "I don't know how we can vote on this until we have the rules laid out on how a one-person, one-vote is going to be paid for," said Glenn Woods, a retiree from Local 31 in Kansas City.

The referendum is a requirement of the consent decree following a years-long federal investigation into union corruption resulting in the convictions of 15 people, including two former UAW presidents.

A majority of the speakers during the forum were proponents of adopting the new system, saying it would make leadership accountable to the members.

"We can negotiate wages, we can negotiate healthcare, we can negotiate retirement and many other things, but we cannot negotiate, integrity, and a strong moral compass," said Jamonty Washington, an alternate delegate from Local 7 in Detroit.

Under the current delegate-based system, locals elect delegates to represent them at constitutional conventions where the members of the governing International Executive Board are elected. For more than 70 years, nearly all of those leaders have been elected from the Reuther Administrative Caucus.

"Only 13 people decide who will occupy the seats on the high end in a union of 1 million members," said Michael Cannon, a former Region 5 international representative. "The convention only acts as a rubber stamp to the decision made by the 13 members of the administration, which is always the foregone conclusion."

Non-auto worker members said they don't feel like their voice is heard under the current delegate system.

"Academic workers make up about 20% of active membership, but we have no representation on the IEB and very little voice at conventions," said Sheila Kulkarni, a member of Local 2865 representing student workers at the University of California. "Because we're mostly on the east and west coasts, the cost of traveling and accommodations at conventions are prohibitive."

At the last constitutional convention in 2018, about 225 locals did not send any delegates to represent their members.

"Most of those are small locals with limited resources, small or large, they didn't want to waste resources on a convention that they knew the outcome was predetermined," said Scott Houldieson, chair of the Unite All Workers for Democracy, an opposing caucus to the Reuther Administrative Caucus that supports "one member, one vote."

Other speakers said they have been silenced or have seen delegates be threatened to vote a certain way at conventions.

"These undemocratic tactics crushed the rank-and-file movement and has changed the culture of the UAW," said Alan Benchich, former president of Local 909 in Warren. "This system of rewards and pressure allowed for corruption and leadership, which has led to this referendum. Let me conclude by saying that one-party systems are the hallmark of dictatorships, not democracies."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble