UAW direct election issue wins support of workers, federal monitor projects

Direct voting has prevailed in a historic referendum on how the United Auto Workers union chooses its international leaders, according to preliminary results released Wednesday night.

Mervin White, 33, (l), a volunteer for Unite All Workers for Democracy, hands a leaflet to Teresa Cosley as she enters Stellantis Sterling Heights Assembly Plant.

The win, if certified, means the upending of a decades-old system for electing international officials of the union, and amounts to a major rebuke from rank-and-file members of union leadership that has been plagued by a corruption scandal.

The victory for the "one member, one vote" movement within the union also comes amid renewed momentum in the U.S. labor movement that has seen workers across the country — including UAW members from manufacturing to higher education — going on strike and otherwise pushing for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

The court-appointed UAW monitor in charge of overseeing the referendum did not immediately provide a new vote tally but said in an update on its website that as of 7:35 p.m. Wednesday, "the total number of votes in support of the direct voting system crossed a threshold that indicates that it will receive more votes than the delegate system and will prevail, pending final certification of the vote. The tabulation process will continue until every vote is counted and the unofficial results are announced."

Earlier Wednesday, with roughly 72% of approximately 143,072 returned ballots counted, direct elections were ahead with 65,136 members, or 62.8%, in favor. Meanwhile, 38,503 members, or 37.2%, had voted in favor of keeping the existing system in place.

Unite All Workers for Democracy, a reform caucus within the union that led a grassroots movement for direct elections, claimed victory in a statement Wednesday night.

“The work of our caucus is just beginning. We invite all UAW members to join us in our fight against concessions, corruption, and tiers. We will build a union based on solidarity, not partnership with management,” UAWD Chair Scott Houldieson said.

Chris Budnick, a member of UAW Local 862 at Ford Motor Co.'s Louisville Assembly Plant, added in a statement Wednesday night: “The membership of our great union has made clear that they want to change the direction of the UAW and return to our glory days of fighting for our members. I am so proud of the UAW membership and their willingness to step up and vote for change.” 

Budnick is recording secretary for Unite All Workers for Democracy, a caucus within the union that led a grassroots movement for direct elections.  

Ballots, which are being tabulated by Merriman River Group under the supervision of the UAW's court-appointed monitor as well as the U.S. Labor Department's Office of Labor-Management Standards, began being counted earlier this week after the Monday deadline to return them. They were sent out to the Detroit-based union's roughly 1 million active and retired members in October.

“It’s amazing. It’s a great day for the membership of the union to pass the referendum," Chris Viola, a worker at General Motors Co.'s Factory Zero Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center who voted in favor of direct elections, told The Detroit News Wednesday night. "It’s an exciting direction."

The monitor, New York attorney Neil Barofsky, will announce the unofficial results once tabulation is complete. Final results — which must be approved by the Office of Labor-Management Standards and a federal district court — are expected Thursday. 

The election brought on by a corruption scandal within the UAW could reshape the leadership of one of the country's most influential unions. The governing International Executive Board has been dominated for 70 years by the Reuther or Administrative Caucus, which is advocating for the continuation of the current system of choosing officers.

Neil Barofsky is the court-appointed monitor of the United Auto Workers.

Under that system, local unions elect delegates to represent them at a constitutional convention where the international leaders are selected. Advocates for moving to the "one member, one vote" system, meanwhile, contend that such a change would increase accountability in a union that has seen two of its former presidents convicted in the corruption scandal.

"The old approach is an out-of-date system that kept the powerful in power and led to arrogance and lack of accountability," said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross Business School. "Direct voting will keep leadership focused on what's best for members, not on what's best for themselves."

The UAW is a different union than it was before the 1980s as it has diversified its member base with graduate student researchers, writers, casino workers and more. A direct election may be more representative of that diversity and help with further efforts to organize workplaces, said Art Wheaton of Cornell University.

"It may help it to be free of some of that old baggage and the perception of the old way of doing things," Wheaton said. "It eliminates some of the black eye on the union."

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