UAW members challenge Ray Curry for union presidency

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Instituting direct elections of United Auto Workers' international officials is leading some members to step up and challenge President Ray Curry to the union's top role, even from within Solidarity House.

Passage last year of the "one member, one vote" system by a referendum vote of the membership was brought on by a years-long corruption scandal, implicating 17 people, including two former UAW presidents. It's setting up a historic leadership selection process ahead of next year's critical contract negotiations with the Detroit Three automakers as their transition to electrification increasingly affects shop floors and as the union covers an increasingly diverse swath of members.

Shawn Fain, an international United Auto Workers administrative representative who works in the Stellantis Department, is seeking nomination for UAW president.

Now some of those members feel empowered by the opportunity for the rank-and-file to choose their leaders instead of the locally elected delegates who've historically voted on the leaders at a Constitutional Convention held every four years. The former system, critics say, helped keep the candidates put forth by the Reuther or Administrative Caucus in power for more than 70 years. Some members say new voices are needed to restore trust in the union and offer transparency.

The Detroit News left an inquiry with the court-appointed UAW monitor regarding how many candidates have submitted declaration forms with the intention to run for office. Curry announced in March his intention to run for election for a full term after being appointed to the office following the retirement of Rory Gamble last year.

UAW President Ray Curry

Tossing their hat into the ring are members like Shawn Fain, an international UAW administrative representative who works in the Stellantis Department. He announced his candidacy on Thursday on Facebook. The 28-year UAW member started at the automaker's casting plant in Kokomo, Indiana, as an electrician and joined the international's staff in 2012 after serving in the leadership of Local 1166. He is seeking endorsement from the dissident Unite All Workers for Democracy Caucus, which hasn't not yet endorsed a slate.

Over his career, Fain, 53, of Shelby Township says he believes the union can do better to serve its members and has seen and experienced pushback when members seek to be a voice for the membership.

"When I came on staff at Solidarity House, I was really proud," he said. "I made it to the pinnacle of the union and thought, 'This is going to be really great.' I didn’t realize at that point how that was going to be. They don't fight for our members. They're complacent."

Fain lamented how autoworkers hired after 2007 no longer receive pension and retirement health-care benefits unlike the workers hired before them. With the automakers having recovered from the recession and earning billions of dollars, Fain, a member of the national negotiation team in 2009 and 2011 for skilled trades and then in 2015 and 2019 as an international representative, feels the union should've pushed for more, particularly when it comes to the eight years it takes for full-time autoworkers to reach top pay.

The final straw for Fain, he said, was when the union recently bettered the pensions of its own employees hired after 2008 to be the same as the pensions as those hired before 2008.

"They are not being transparent," he said. "We just have mixed-up priorities. To me, the priorities should be focused more on the members."

He points to the obstacles the UAW is facing in organizing new electric-vehicle battery plants mostly operated between automakers and battery manufacturers as well as the assembly plants of foreign car makers: "There's no commitment to be UAW plants, no commitment our workers will have any rights to those jobs. We’re falling behind."

Charles Bell, who now is the president of UAW Local 1700 representing workers at Stellantis' Sterling Heights Assembly Plant that makes the Ram 1500 pickups, was a member alongside Fain of the UAW's Chrysler council made up of local shop committee members and presidents before Fain became a part of international staff. He describes Fain as an intelligent leader who quotes President John F. Kennedy and is passionate about hearing everyone's voice.

"The room lit up as he spoke," Bell said, recalling one debate. "Shawn fought hard to protect the skilled trades and the entire membership of the UAW. I think he would make an excellent president. He is a man of integrity and is fair. He speaks truth, no matter if you want to hear it or not."

Although Fain worked in Solidarity House at a time when embezzlement entangled leaders, he says he's fought for workers. He's objected to seven-day work schedules for skilled trade employees at what is now Stellantis' Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, which produces the Ram 1500 pickup trucks, and says he's been a part of efforts as a negotiator to prevent further tier-type classifications.

"I know if I wasn't there, things would have been different," he said.

And he says he's received pushback for objecting to leadership lines: Two former vice presidents and a senior staff member for a vice president have given him what he calls the "who do you work for?" speech. Fain says it should be the members, not UAW officials.

Three of Fain's grandparents worked for General Motors Co. and Chrysler. He constantly carries a check stub his grandfather earned from Chrysler — the one in his pocket this week was from March 23,1940. For 32 hours, the net pay was $29.21.

"They were proud of the jobs they had," the father of two adult daughters said. "I've worked nonunion in the past. It's just more security, better pay, better benefits. It's the coming together of people from various walks of life. It's not a perfect thing, but it's the best thing we have. It's been off course due to the corruption and the scandal. We've got to get this ship turned around."

Will Lehman, 34, is a five-year employee for Mack Trucks Inc. in Macungie, Pennsylvania, who is running for UAW president.

Fain isn't the only member seeking the presidency. Will Lehman, 34, a five-year employee for Mack Trucks Inc. in Macungie, Pennsylvania, on Thursday posted a YouTube video announcing his candidacy. The self-proclaimed socialist details policy objectives, including cutting international leader paycheck and staff, ending the joint training centers that have been restructured since facilitating corruption between UAW leaders, automakers and vendors, and ensuring transparency in the ratification process of contracts.

Five years "has been enough time for me," Lehman said in the video, "to see that it is not a supposed lack of solidarity of workers on the shop floor that is undermining our struggles, but the betrayals of the bureaucracy of the UAW. Our present leadership assists the companies to triumph over us at every single point it has overseen concession after concession on cost of living increases pensions retirement benefits  health care while dividing us up into tiers."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble