UAW nominates candidates for top offices, increases strike pay

Detroit — Delegates to the United Auto Workers' quadrennial Constitutional Convention on Wednesday nominated six candidates to challenge President Ray Curry in his bid for election to a full term to lead the powerful and influential union.

The first direct election of International Executive Board members being held this fall has empowered some members to challenge leaders of the union as it seeks to recover from a corruption scandal that reached the former top echelon of the Detroit-based organization. Whoever wins will be charged with helping to restore integrity and negotiating critical contracts with the Detroit Three automakers as they make the transition to electrification.

Delegates applaud the introduction of U.S. Labor Secretary, Marty Walsh during the morning session at the UAW Constitutional Convention.

Delegates also flexed their readiness to fight for a better contract by voting to increase weekly strike pay to $500 and allowing it to start from day one of a work stoppage.

The seven men nominated for president were the following:

  • Ray Curry, UAW president
  • Brian Keller, employee at Stellantis NV’s quality engineering center in Auburn Hills and reform advocate on social media 
  • Jim Coakley, retired top assistant to former UAW Vice President General Holiefield in the Chrysler Department
  • Shawn Fain, an international UAW administrative representative in the Stellantis Department who has been endorsed by the reform-minded Unite All Workers for Democracy caucus
  • Mark “Gibby” Gibson, Detroit Diesel Corp. chairperson at Local 163 in Westland
  • Will Lehman, an employee at Mack Trucks Inc. in Macungie, Pennsylvania
  • John Guinan, a retired top administrative assistant under former Vice President Jack Laskowski for the Chrysler Department

All seven names are unlikely to appear on the ballots that will be mailed to members starting Oct. 17. Delegates on Tuesday reaffirmed the decision not to allow retirees to run for international offices, though retirees still can vote in the election.

The court-appointed monitor, lawyer Neil Barofsky, will make a final determination on eligibility regarding Coakley and Guinan; the latter wasn't present to accept his nomination at the convention. Candidates have 24 hours to accept.

Curry formally will address the convention on Thursday after multiple delays in his keynote, which originally was schedule for Monday.

Three candidates were nominated for secretary-treasurer and 10 individuals for the three vice president positions.

Delegates will nominate candidates for the nine regional director positions on Thursday.

Experts say candidates looking to challenge current leaders and their Administrative Caucus, which has held control of the union for seven decades, will face an uphill battle even as direct elections open a greater opportunity for them.

"I do have faith in the leadership that we have right now," said Angela Jones, 59, a Ford Motor Co. employee and delegate for Local 3000 in Woodhaven, "that they are going to do what they need to do in this next upcoming contract for us."

Curry himself has extensive experience in leadership, previously holding office as a regional director and then as secretary-treasurer. Probes by the monitor and the UAW's own ethics officer have cleared Curry of misconduct. A report from the monitor last week suggested the union has improved in responding to requests made by Barofsky in his investigation after he accused the union of reneging on an agreement.

UAW President Ray Curry listens to remarks by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh during Wednesday's session.

"I like Ray," said Edward Scaggs, 46, a delegate from Local 249 in Pleasant Valley, Missouri, and a Ford employee at its Kansas City plant. "He's cool. He's a solid guy. I feel like he's got a good heart, and he's not going to steal money."

In addition to name recognition, Curry's experience in office has exposed him to various sectors and experience in negotiations.

"There really are some important skills you need for bargaining these automotive contracts," said Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School. "If they don’t have those experience, it could be challenging for them to win the election and get agreements with the Detroit Three automakers and to ratify the contract. There's a good chance that Ray Curry will win."

Candidates also will have to appeal beyond the traditional transportation sector to other areas where the union has grown, including higher education, gaming and health care.

"I'm looking for some transparency from our union, that we can bring back from our international leaders, back to us, back to our members," said Kim Wheeler, 53, a delegate for Local 4911 that represents employees at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing. "I'm looking for someone who knows the system, not just the Big Three, because there are those of us who work in technical, office and professional, who tend to get lost amongst the Big Three, so someone who has that big picture."

The best chance for a challenger, said Marick Masters, a management professor at Wayne State University, is one who has organized backing like through a caucus that can assist in building support, funding and name recognition. Three months, however, isn't much time to accomplish that. Running now, however, could help to lay the foundation for more competitive races in the future.

"A lot of it will depend on what happens in the next four years," Masters said. "There are a lot of changes in the industry and international economy that will have great implications for automakers and autoworkers specifically."

Bill Bagwell Jr., a delegate from Local 174 in Livonia, said he nominated Lehman after hearing other delegates were feeling intimidated not to do so and because he believes in full access to the ballot. He thinks new leadership is needed to regain trust. He knows Gibson, who he says looked after workers on his picket line at GM's customer care and aftersales facility in Ypsilanti during the 40-day national strike in 2019.

"We used to be known as the clean union," Bagwell said. "We're not known that way anymore."

Consent decree costs and strike pay

The convention on Wednesday also featured discussions on resolutions affecting the strike fund and strike pay, speeches from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, and honors for retiring IEB members, including vice presidents Terry Dittes and Cindy Estrada.

At the request of delegates, the union also provided a breakdown of the more than $12.8 million in fees related to activities required by the consent decree reached with the U.S. Justice Department following a years-long federal corruption probe.

Those fees include:

  • Nearly $7 million paid to the court-appointed monitor tasked with overseeing the union.
  • More than $2.2 million on vendor fees associated with a referendum in which members voted to institute direct elections of international officers.
  • More than $850,000 on fees tied to an ethics hotline operated by the union.
  • More than $165,000 on fees to an adjudications officer.
  • And about $2.6 million for the estimated cost of International Executive Board elections later this year.

Earlier, in a rare move, delegates pulled a resolution from committee and approved it. The decision allows strike pay to begin from day one of a work stoppage instead of day eight. They later pulled another resolution from committee to increase the weekly strike stipend to $500 from the $400 to which the IEB increased it in June. Delegates approved the increase.

"The membership has decided to take back the UAW," Bagwell said.

Curry said the strike fund sits at $827 million. He said the union projects it could reach $850 million by December. A 2018 resolution set that amount as a threshold that would trigger a decrease in members' dues. The decrease would return dues to the level they were before 2014, when UAW delegates approved a 25% dues increase, the first hike since 1967.

The fund balance in 2014 was at an all-time low of $596.7 million. The 2018 resolution included a provision that if the strike fund fell below $650 million, dues would return to the increased level.

Delegates also pulled a resolution from committee that would've opened the way for absentee voting in local elections. This proposal, however, ultimately was rejected by a majority of the approximately 900 delegates.

The delegates also approved a resolution that denounced sexual harassment and workplace violence and called for the protection of reproductive rights.

Whitmer, Walsh discuss labor issues

Meanwhile, Whitmer — who is running for re-election this fall — touted some of her first-term legislative wins and vowed to "continue to fight for working people."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses delegates during the morning session of the UAW Constitutional Convention on Wednesday,  July 27, 2022, at Huntington Place in Detroit.

Whitmer highlighted thousands of new auto jobs and billions in auto investments the state has won since she took office; a bipartisan economic development bill she signed into law late last year; the $54.8 billion state operating budget she signed into law last week; and her ongoing efforts to repeal the state's pension tax.

"My message to anyone who wants to shortchange our workers is clear: Not on my watch," she said. “I am a pro-worker governor to the core, and I will continue to fight for working people.”

Whitmer also emphasized the importance of the upcoming general election: "On this ballot is workers' rights, is civil rights, is voting rights, is women's rights — and we must win."

Labor Secretary Walsh, a former union official, touted President Joe Biden's domestic agenda — including his support of the CHIPS Act that would provide incentives to support domestic semiconductor manufacturing — and cast his administration as pro-worker. The U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed the bill for $76 billion in semiconductor subsidies, sending it to the House of Representatives.

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told UAW delegates that President Joe Biden "has your back."

"The president wanted me to let you know, he has your back," he said during his address. "The president understands the fundamental importance of domestic manufacturing to our economy, to our climate, to our future."

Walsh also discussed inflation, which is at a 40-year high and has become a key concern for voters as midterm elections loom. Walsh said Biden is "using every tool to fight global inflation."

Walsh also put in a plug for the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO Act, a stalled piece of legislation that would provide protections for workers attempting to organize, and noted a new online toolkit with resources for workers on how to unionize.

"We're using the bully pulpit to speak out in support of workers' rights," he said. “I want you to know that we stand with you, we always stand with you. The president stands with you. This administration stands with you. Organized labor stands with you.”

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble