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Auto Workers Turn a Corner for Strike Pay and Democracy

A newly organized reform movement turned the convention into a rowdy debate that, for moments, even overruled the top union leaders. Again and again, members of the Unite All Workers for Democracy reform caucus (UAWD) and other delegates gathered the numbers to put their issues on the convention floor.

Delegates on the convention floor gathered before a debate that increased strike pay. Although the ruling caucus managed to get the strike pay increase reversed the following day, this year's convention—unlike any UAW convention in recent memory—featured , Vail Kohnert-Yount

Reformers in the Auto Workers won day one strike pay at the union’s constitutional convention in Detroit last week. They also forced open debate on the top concession that has weakened the union in the last 15 years—tiered contracts that condemn newer workers to lower pay and benefits beside “legacy” workers doing the same job.

This was the first UAW convention since a leadership corruption scandal erupted, reformers won a member referendum last fall to adopt one-member-one-vote for top officers, and the auto industry began a serious transition to electric vehicles. Held every four years, the meeting has usually been a stale coronation of leaders. A newly organized reform movement turned the convention into a rowdy debate that, for moments, even overruled the top union leaders.

Again and again, members of the Unite All Workers for Democracy reform caucus (UAWD) and other delegates gathered the numbers to put their issues on the convention floor. (That is, in between endless speeches from politicians, glowing videos about top union officers, and other time-wasting snoozes.)

After debate, the dissenters were often voted down by loyalists of the Administration Caucus (AC) that has commanded every top office in the union since the 1950s. But reformers found enough new allies to rack up some remarkable victories.

Strike pay across the union will now start on the first day of a strike, instead of its eighth. This will make a huge difference in the ability of thousands of UAW members to start and sustain a strike.

Jessie Kelly, a skilled moldmaker at GM near Detroit, has seen the low-paid and the higher-paid ends of the auto workforce. She was a temp for three years and said, “Strike pay on day one was one of the most important issues to me coming in. We have a lot of low- and bottom-tier members who live paycheck to paycheck. It’s hard as hell for them to go a week with no pay.”

UAWD developed the day one strike pay resolution as a top priority, and the caucus passed it through locals representing more than 40 percent of the membership. Another part of the resolution included a strike pay raise from $275 to $400 a week, which top UAW officers chose to adopt before it hit the convention floor.

In campaigns for the union’s top officers, individual donations will be capped at $2,000 from 2026 on. The constitution committee had proposed no maximum. This was a spontaneous effort from the floor that passed with about 70 percent. Supporters spoke to the need to check the financial sway of top officers and staff, whose salaries are often triple what members make.

UAWD’s top priority was a constitutional amendment to block expansion of tiered contracts, and work towards ending tiers entirely. In a tiered contract, workers hired later do the same job as more senior workers at far lower pay and benefits. After hundreds of delegates supported bringing the amendment to the floor, it garnered nearly a third of the vote, much higher than dissidents’ numbers in the past.

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AC supporters argued that bargaining was the place to deal with tiers, and that while they too despised tiers, they needed flexibility to keep them to avoid other concessions, and longer-term organizing to cut tiers out. Predictably, the next day newspapers reported that delegates had declined to repudiate tiers, while voting in a 3 percent raise for top officers.

Other key resolutions were forced to the floor for landmark debates. Yasin Mahdi, three months on strike at CNH Industrial, advanced a resolution from the floor to raise strike pay even more: “We need to come to bargaining with $500 a week, from day one, so they know we mean to stop the corporate fuckery.” The measure passed with a two-thirds majority before AC leaders organized to overturn it a day later.

CIVILITY RESTORED

UAW conventions have been notable for their intolerance of dissent, even when the number of reformers was small. In 2018 and some prior conventions, loyalists handed out noisemakers to drown out speakers who dared to dissent.

This year, whether due to the rising reform movement or because the union is under a federal monitorship, the tone was far more civil. Dissidents were rarely booed at the mic, and due process was largely followed. While frequent challenges and process points from delegates sometimes led to confusion and griping on the floor, they also showed a union convention that, for a few days, stepped beyond the top-down pageants of recent decades.

Willie Holmes is supporting incumbent president Ray Curry for re-election, but he said, “This is the best convention we’ve had. All this debate, all this questioning the people up at the front, it’s holding them to the fire. It might seem raucous. That’s what convention is supposed to be.

“Every time before, we’d show up and be told, here’s the slate. Then we’d wait around for three days for it to be over.”

Holmes is local union president at a General Motors axle and engine parts plant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During the union’s 2019 strike at GM, International officers ordered his local to return to work to fill a military order. Instead, Holmes and his local decided to stay out on strike. After proving their crucial point in the supply chain, the local ended tiers in their plant’s contract.

CORRUPTION CREEPS

A few days before the convention, the federal monitor overseeing the Auto Workers issued a report bemoaning union officers’ failure to cooperate with his investigations, or even to reply to his requests for information. The monitor has 19 investigations into corruption ongoing, on top of the 13 UAW officials already convicted and sent (briefly) to jail.

With the important exception of the raise in strike pay, stonewalling also seemed to be the AC policy for the convention. No UAWD resolution or constitutional amendment was put on the official docket for discussion, despite their support from many locals. The proposal to end tiers was not even printed in the “Submitted Resolutions” booklet. It was as if the AC expected to replicate past conventions where it presided with impunity.

Rebranding as the “Mass Caucus,” at least for now, the AC held daily meetings where leaders laid out the plans for the day. With future staff jobs and attention for their locals on the line, delegates were told to follow orders from the top in the name of “solidarity” and “respecting the union.” One reformer who attended described the caucus environment as a “captive audience meeting.”

A troubling sign came with a change approved for the union’s Membership Advisory Committee on Ethics. This oversight group was created in 2021 by a random, jury-style selection of eight of the 120 members who applied. A convention majority decided that instead, the union’s regional directors will now select the members who oversee their ethics. Without further changes or pressure, the foxes’ pups might be the ones to guard the coop.

REFORMERS GET ORGANIZED

UAWD is a reform caucus allying members from the union’s traditional blue-collar base in manufacturing with the higher education and legal workers who now make up a quarter of the 400,000-member union. Younger members’ tech savvy was on full display in the use of Whatsapp updates and chats, with delegates, alternates, and others able to discuss in real time next steps on the floor.

The caucus was founded just before the pandemic to fight to replace convention-based elections with one-member-one-vote, and it gained new traction when the federal government put the UAW under the monitor. With UAWD as the main organizers of a “yes” campaign for one-member-one-vote, last November members voted by almost two-thirds to adopt the new system, and for the first time this fall, officer candidates will have to face the membership.

Shunte Sanders-Beasley, vice president of a Detroit-area Stellantis local, said her plant went 89 percent for one-member-one-vote last fall and that “because of the things that happened over the last 40 years, there’s no connection between the administration and the rank and file. It’s been a dictatorship. Members want to feel that they’re involved.”

Perhaps reflecting that disconnect, turnout for the referendum was low. UAWD members—many of them new to union politics—have spent this year organizing their local members to pass convention resolutions and elect delegates on the platform “No Tiers, No Corruption, No Concessions.”

They are backing a slate called UAW Members United: Shawn Fain, a dissident international representative for president; Margaret Mock, a former local shop chair, for secretary-treasurer; and Lashawn English, a three-term local president, for director of Region 1, one of three regions in Michigan. Both Fain and English fought imposition of the dreaded 3/2/120 work schedule in their plants.

At a gathering for the slate held in a nearby bar Monday night, Fain referred to contract concessions the union made in 2009 when Chrysler and GM were in danger of bankruptcy and said, “Those [concessions] are still there, even though the companies are making money hand over fist… We have to set a standard that will make people want to be part of this union.” Mock mock-apologized for not handing out backpacks with her name on them, a reference to a recent scandal by her incumbent opponent giving out goodies for self-promotion.

Bob Bickerstaff, a 39-year member and president of a Toledo Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) local, thought one-member-one-vote had opened a new day. “It should have been like this all along,” he said. “We can’t grow the union without everybody having input to take on the companies.”

At their morning meetings, UAWD members cheered wins on strike pay and the hard-won openness of debate. Caucus co-chair Scott Houldieson said, “We made history yesterday. We passed an amendment from the floor. As far as I know, that hasn’t happened since the early 1980s.”

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

On the convention’s final day, the Administration Caucus went on the attack. The daily opening prayer, by Herb Taylor from Local 31, sought to warn and divide reformers: “I have a message for the young people: Stop disrespecting this union.” The many older auto workers who had spoken for reform were apparently not worth mentioning. Some AC supporters broke from prayer to give a standing ovation.

Next came a charade of kissing up. AC supporters spent practically an hour nominating a union trustee candidate over and over from the floor, gleefully defying a rule allowing only two speakers per candidate.

To make up for lost time, a book of more than 20 resolutions from the leadership was then approved as a block, without debate. This included a resolution on electric vehicles (EVs) focused on backing politicians and tax rebates to steer this growing non-union sector into the UAW, with hardly a mention of organizing battery and assembly workers themselves. A UAWD resolution to drive worker-led organizing at EV plants never made the floor.

Finally, hours before adjourning, when some delegates had already left for the airport, AC delegates moved to rescind the $500 strike pay resolution passed barely a day before. Since that idea had been submitted by a lowly striking worker on the floor, establishment allies claimed the move had paid insufficient respect to the “highly educated men and women” of the leadership and how they chose resolutions in advance.

In the end, with debate cut off before any objections could be voiced, delegates voted 421-181 to lower strike pay from $500 back to $400 a week.

For all the let-downs at the end, Kelly celebrated the convention’s big step forward: “I was at convention in 2018. After the convention, I came home and felt sick. That was what I’d been organizing under, spending all my free time to build up?

“This year, there’s so much more debate. It’s more democratic. It’s beautiful to see.

“I really believe our membership is so intelligent. We can get so organized when we need to. But that’s not how we were treated. Now, you see one day of this, you see how smart we are.”

Keith Brower Brown is a member of UAW Local 2865 at the University of California and was a delegate to the convention. Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes.