UAW presidential candidates to face off in election forum tonight

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Candidates for president of the United Auto Workers on Thursday fielded questions from members about their plans to grow the union's membership base, position the union for the auto industry's transition to electric vehicles, and rebuild trust with members in the wake of a years-long federal corruption investigation.

Four challengers are vying to unseat incumbent UAW President Ray Curry:

• 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. shop chairperson at Local 163 in Westland;

• Brian Keller, an employee at Stellantis NV’s quality engineering center in Auburn Hills who has held local leadership positions;

• Will Lehman, an employee at Mack Trucks Inc. in Macungie, Pennsylvania.

The challengers largely sought to distance themselves from the current members of the union's governing International Executive Board, while Curry touted reforms that have been made in the wake of the corruption scandal, ongoing organizing efforts and his experience at the bargaining table. Several of the challengers were critical of concessions the union has made in recent contracts and what they characterized as the development of a cozy relationship between union leaders and the companies where their members work.

This election marks the first in which members will vote directly on the election of international officers. Ballots are slated to go out to members starting Oct. 17 and must be returned by Nov. 28.

Experts have said the stakes are high for the election, which will occur as the UAW attempts to move past the corruption probe that's led to numerous convictions – and as the union positions itself for a rapidly-changing automotive industry. It also comes ahead of the start next year of a new round of national contract talks with the Detroit automakers.

In the forum moderated by labor journalist Steven Greenhouse, each candidate had three minutes to introduce themselves before fielding questions Greenhouse developed based on member input.

Fain touted his experience as a national negotiator in 2009 and 2011, even as he noted that he's been critical of national agreements that have made concessions such as the introduction of tiers that resulted in lower wages and benefits for newer workers.

“I’m running because I believe we need leadership at the top who will take action when our members’ futures and livelihoods are at stake," he said. "I’m running because I’m sick of complacency of our top leaders.”

Fain criticized the union's top leadership for the 2015 and 2019 national agreements they reached: "We’ve had at least 10 years with perfect conditions for regaining and improving what was lost during the Great Recession. What we’ve witnessed was lost opportunities, due to the IEB being focused on themselves rather than the membership.”

Lehman cast himself as an anti-establishment candidate who would forgo bureaucracy in favor of running the union from the shop floor up.

“The UAW bureaucracy is part of management," he said. “We must replace the role of the apparatus with workers’ committees in each factory and workplace to build rank-and-file power."

Keller is running for president, he said, "to help the membership reclaim the power and the control of their union. I'm also fighting to claim past concessions that we've lost while helping these companies in their darkest times."

Gibson touted contract wins he was able to help secure for Local 163 members at Detroit Diesel.

Curry, meanwhile, vowed to "bring the membership back into greater days" and touted current leaders' strategy and organizing know-how.

Curry also defended the track record of the union's current spate of leaders in making reforms to clean up and prevent corruption. Asked about whether it's time for a change from the Administrative Caucus that has remained atop the union for decades, Curry noted that the UAW leaders who were implicated in the corruption probe are no longer part of the union and contended that there is "no ongoing corruption within our organization."

"To tarnish everyone and paint everyone with same brush, that's unfair," he said. "We're moving things forward. We're organizing."

He noted the addition of thousands of new members in higher education, as well as ongoing efforts to organize workers at Ultium Cells LLC battery plants.

Fain, meanwhile, was asked how he could keep his promise of removing tiers and not making any concessions, especially if the U.S. economy plunges into a recession.

“We have to change the mindset. Even when the question is asked, it’s posed like it’s some type of impossible fantasy, because we’ve been conditioned to think achieving these things are impossible. It is possible," he said. “If the membership truly wants to go after ending tiers and concessions, you have to elect leaders with a vision, with a plan and a backbone to fight for it.”

Twitter: @jgrzelewski

Will Lehman is a five-year UAW member at Mack Trucks Inc. in Macungie, Pennsylvania, who is seeking the presidency.
Mark "Gibby" Gibson, Detroit Diesel Corp. chairperson at UAW Local 163.
Brian Keller, who works in the housekeeping department at Stellantis NV's quality and engineering center in Auburn Hills, is seeking the UAW presidency after running in 2018.
Shawn Fain, an international United Auto Workers administrative representative who works in the Stellantis Department, is seeking nomination for UAW president.