February 11, 1937, marks the victory of the 44-day Flint Sit-down Strike that forced General Motors to recognize the United Auto Workers.
After the victory, however, a factional fight divided the fledgling union. Within a few years’ time, UAW-CIO — militants affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations — defeated UAW-AFL, class collaborationists who wanted the union to be part of the conservative, craft-oriented American Federation of Labor. (The two then-separate federations did not merge until 1955.)
The recent 38th UAW Constitutional Convention demonstrated that the struggle over the union’s direction is still very much alive. As has been the case for decades, rank-and-file militants have become the opposition to the top-down business unionism of the controlling Administration Caucus (AC), which has more in common with the old UAW-AFL than the radical-led UAW-CIO of the past. The current International Executive Board (IEB) prefers labor-management cooperation over class-struggle unionism, squelching union democracy to stifle any challenges to the AC.
But this Convention, held July 25-28, marked a qualitative shift in the balance of forces. Among the 900 delegates — representing over 300 local unions in a range of sectors from manufacturing to higher education to public employees — there was enough organized opposition to force resolutions submitted by the locals to the floor for debate. This feat is in no small part due to the efforts of Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a rank-and-file-led caucus formed in 2020.
Typically the AC runs a staged convention around its own omnibus resolution, which is weakly progressive on a variety of issues, interspersed with speeches by Democratic Party politicians. Candidates for the IEB are nominated toward the end of the convention; for the most part they have run unopposed or with marginal opposition. The AC exerts enough pressure on delegates to prevent them from reaching the threshold needed to bring other amendments and resolutions to the floor — that threshold being roughly 15% of delegates under convention rules.
A critical change from previous conventions is that now the IEB must be elected directly by the UAW rank-and-file members. Members defeated the old system of election by convention delegates in a 2-1 vote last year. The referendum was ordered as part of the consent decree between the UAW and the federal government, after a federal investigation uncovered massive corruption, including theft of union funds, kickbacks from vendors and taking bribes from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in exchange for contract concessions.
Delegates discuss tiers
Several amendments, which were drafted by UAWD and passed by a number of locals, were the subject of lively discussion. One would have modified the UAW Constitution to commit the union to opposing unequal and divisive tiered pay and benefits. Allowing two tiers in the 2007 contracts with Ford, General Motors and Chrysler (now part of Stellantis) meant big savings for the companies, i.e. bigger profits, by paying newer workers lower wages, offering fewer benefits and denying them a traditional pension.
This betrayal of the next generation of autoworkers has become widely unpopular. The way the AC defeated the progressive amendment was to argue that the subject “didn’t belong in the Constitution” and should be raised at the Special Bargaining Convention in 2023. But there is no sidestepping the issue; that almost 300 delegates voted to take the amendment to the floor and succeeded in forcing a floor debate on tiers was unprecedented.
Over two dozen locals passed a UAWD resolution to raise weekly strike benefits to $400 per week, beginning on day one instead of after the first week. Prior to the convention, the IEB voted for the increased $400 weekly strike pay. Convention delegates enshrined this in the Constitution and instituted the day one start — and then amended that language to further raise weekly strike pay to $500! A member currently on strike since May at Case New Holland said that would be a real disincentive to anyone thinking of crossing the picket line.
With the Big Three auto company contracts expiring in 2023, putting more money in the pockets of striking workers to help them get by would ensure greater leverage at the bargaining table. Withholding labor at the point of production is the only real weapon unions have against powerful corporations, who have the backing of the capitalist state.
Fourth day: business unionism as usual
The AC had lost control; the convention was not following the script. Maneuverings on the final day of the convention were an effort to put the genie of militant, independent rank-and-file activism back in the bottle. Delegates were given their marching (backward) orders before the gavel struck.
The charade began with the nominations for an International Trustee, still chosen by convention delegates. The rules approved by delegates allowed only two nominating speeches per candidate. Yet over 60 delegates went to the microphone to nominate the AC’s hand-picked candidate, a process that ate up hours of discussion time. UAWD Steering Committee Chair Scott Houldieson was, however, still able to garner a sizable number of votes.
The worst example of AC manipulation, after many delegates had left to catch flights home, followed. A delegate made a motion to bring strike pay back down to $400, claiming $500 would bankrupt the strike fund. The reduction passed by a wide margin.
What message does this retreat send to the bosses? That “we’re prepared to fight” — but not too much, so don’t worry?
A text thread for UAWD-friendly delegates was burning up with angry comments. Noted was the irony that a pay increase for IEB members was not brought up for reconsideration.
The struggle at the UAW convention is part of a bigger debate: Should unions continue a policy of class peace, settling for whatever crumbs the capitalists are willing to offer? Or is it time to revive the class struggle and take it beyond the confines of the traditional union structure and build a global classwide movement?
For workers, to pose the question is to answer it.