UAW President Ray Curry confirms he'll run for full term

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

United Auto Workers President Ray Curry confirmed Tuesday he will run for a full term in office after serving the remainder of his predecessor's term.

Curry, who was elevated from secretary-treasurer to president last June upon former President Rory Gamble's retirement, made the expected move official during a virtual Automotive Press Association event in Detroit moderated by Reuters global automotive correspondent Joe White.

UAW President Ray Curry says organizing electric vehicle assembly and component plants is a crucial priority for the union.

Curry's remarks touched on many of the pressing issues he would face as president if elected to a new term. Among the major changes facing the union is the first direct election of the UAW's top leaders — a reform members approved in a historic referendum last year — following a constitutional conventional in July where delegates elected by local unions will vote on constitutional amendments.

Another top issue for the union — growing its membership base — was highlighted Tuesday when Curry said the UAW saw membership s decrease to 372,254 workers at the end of 2021. That was down about 6% from 2020, when the union reported average membership of 397,073. Curry attributed the dip in part to persistent supply-chain disruptions that prompted widespread plant shutdowns last year.

Still, Curry said organizing workers at new electric-vehicle startups, as well as at EV and EV component plants the Detroit automakers and others are building with joint-venture partners, is a top priority for the union as the automotive industry undergoes a historic transformation around electrification.

He acknowledged there are "ongoing discussions" taking place between the UAW and the Detroit Three over union representation of workers at joint-venture battery plants they're building in Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky, among other locations. 

"They've not been populated with employees at this point. That's key for us on any organizing effort," Curry noted. "Those are joint ventures, and they are apart from the national agreements, but we believe that the work that they will be processing each and every day is work that's similar to work that's being performed by classifications that are under the national agreement." The UAW's "No. 1 goal," he said, is making sure those plants are union-represented.

Union leaders view the types of work that will be performed at such plants, whether it's on components used in an internal combustion engine vehicle or in a battery-electric vehicle, as traditional auto work, he said, and they hope to see the automakers maintain a neutral stance on attempts to organize those plants.

Another hurdle to organizing workers in some of those plants, beyond the fact that they don't fall under the union's national agreements with automakers, is that several are in southern states where the UAW historically has struggled to gain a foothold. Still, Curry said Tuesday the union "absolutely" has a plan to organize workers in those states, noting the UAW does have members in states like Tennessee and North Carolina where some of the investments are being made.

“I see those as being new jobs and new manufacturing opportunities and new opportunities for us to organize," he said. "We haven’t had this type of growth opportunity probably since the Industrial Revolution. And this is a key piece, this transition into EVs.”

Curry also addressed comments made by Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of EV heavyweight Tesla Inc., whose employees are not unionized. Musk earlier this month challenged the UAW to hold a union vote at Tesla's Fremont, California plant. Tuesday, Musk took a swipe at the union, saying on Twitter: "The UAW stole millions from workers, whereas Tesla has made many workers millionaires (via stock grants). Subtle, but important difference."

Curry said he has not spoken to Musk or any other Tesla officials.

Another significant event looming for the UAW is the start next year of a new round of contract negotiations with the Detroit automakers. Though Curry said the union still must develop negotiation priorities based on resolutions from local unions, he said the EV transition is sure to be top of mind.

“Clearly, the transformation that’s taking place with regards to EVs will be a major piece of discussion for the three OEMs. It’s transformative," he said. One issue it will be important for the union to address, he said, is developing new classifications for new types of work taking place inside manufacturing facilities.

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JGrzelewski