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Ballots begin going out for historic UAW referendum on direct elections

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Ballots will be mailed out beginning Tuesday for the historic United Auto Workers referendum to determine how members elect leaders in the wake of a corruption scandal that has damaged the union's reputation and led to calls for accountability.

Voting will be open to the roughly 1 million active and retired members that comprise the UAW. The referendum — which is a requirement of the settlement reached between the UAW and the Justice Department over a federal investigation into union corruption — will determine whether the union's constitution will be amended to require a "one member, one vote" system for electing leaders.

UAW member Charles Bell

Ballots must be returned — not postmarked — by Nov. 29. The referendum is being overseen by the UAW's court-appointed monitor.

Under the current system, local UAW chapters elect delegates to represent them at constitutional conventions that take place every four years. There, delegates elect members of the governing International Executive Board. For more than 70 years, nearly all of those leaders have been elected from the caucus started by former UAW President Walter Reuther in the late 1940s.

The referendum comes at a momentous time for the union, as it looks to repair its damaged reputation under new leadership in the wake of the corruption scandal, and aims to ensure its members are brought along on the automotive industry's transition to electric vehicles.

Proponents of "one member, one vote" argue that direct elections of International Executive Board officers would give rank-and-file members a greater voice in the Detroit-based union and promote accountability, an issue that is top of mind among members after the federal investigation into union corruption resulted in 15 convictions, including two former UAW presidents. 

Opponents of the move, meanwhile, have contended it could weaken the union at the bargaining table, and some have expressed concerns about the potential for corruption tied to campaign contributions in direct elections.

At a recent forum, still other UAW members expressed concerns about a lack of clarity on what they were voting on, since referendum language had not yet been shared publicly.

UAW member Charles Bell, 58, of Detroit, plans to vote in favor of direct elections because he believes officers would be more accountable to and supportive of rank-and-file members.

Bell works in the quality department at Stellantis NV's Sterling Heights Assembly Plant and is a member and former president of UAW Local 1700. He recently joined Unite All Workers for Democracy, or UAWD, a grassroots reform caucus within the union.

"Some of the things we've seen take place over the years were discouraging. When the corruption was unveiled, that was real disappointing," Bell told The Detroit News Monday. "I think it's probably time we change the way we do things."

The UAW is prohibited by interim rules from using any of its resources to advocate on the matter. During a media roundtable in August, UAW President Ray Curry, in response to a question, expressed support for the current delegate system.

Meanwhile, In a news release Monday, UAWD called the referendum "the most significant reform effort in the U.S. labor movement since the 1989 restructuring of the Teamsters union." The group said it will be campaigning this week to ensure that participation is high.

"This week UAW members have an important choice," UAWD Chair Scott Houldieson, who works at Ford Motor Co.'s Chicago Assembly Plant, said in a statement. "We can keep the status quo of corrupt officials, cooperation with management, and bad contracts. Or we can choose One Member, One Vote and allow the membership to rebuild our union.”


Twitter: @JGrzelewski

Staff Writer Breana Noble contributed.