the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
May 11, 2023
On March 25, Shawn Fain won the presidency of the UAW, defeating Ray Curry, the candidate of the union’s old regime, in a run-off.
Fain’s “UAW Members United” slate took seven seats on the 14-member UAW International Executive Board. That includes four of the five top officers and three of the union’s nine regional directors. Dave Green, another opponent of the old regime, but running independently, won as director of Region 2B, which had been the center of opposition expressed during the union’s Constitutional Convention, a year earlier.
It was hardly an overwhelming victory. Fain won with a margin of only 483 votes out of 138,435 counted, and his UAW Members United slate was rooted in very few locals. The slate’s four top officers came from just a few Chrysler locals; Fain himself was part of the International’s Chrysler/Stellantis department for the last ten years. Nationally, the slate was not able even to put up a candidate for Regional Director in six of the union’s nine regions.
According to most of the business press, it was, nonetheless, a stunning defeat for the “Administration Caucus” (AC), which had dominated the union since the time of Reuther. For over seven decades, the AC had been a self-perpetuating monolith, hoarding all the top offices in the union.1
So what does the change at the top of the UAW mean for the ranks? Is it just a change of people at the top of the union, or does it portend a change in policy, the union/company partnership pushed by the AC for so many years? And beyond that, will the union try to break out of the narrow framework within which the workers have long confronted their bosses? That company by company framework, which tied the unions to the state, goes back decades, even before World War II. Put in place by strictures in labor law, reinforced in the contracts the unions signed, it limited the workers’ activity to occasional strikes at contract’s end.
At the Bargaining Convention, only two days after the election for president was decided, Fain and Chuck Browning, the highest officer of the AC to be re-elected, both insisted that the union would not be divided by the election. This from Browning’s speech: “To our enemies, who are not in this room, to the rich and powerful that want to attack labor, to the employers who want to make profits at our expense and through the exploitation of workers, to those people I send the message today, and I know this hall does, that this International Executive Board ... we’re going to work together to achieve our goals.”
Both Fain and Browning spoke about the need to prepare for a fight this fall when the contract expires. This from Fain’s opening remarks: “We’re here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against our one, and only one, true enemy: multibillion-dollar corporations and employers that refuse to give our members their fair share.”
Of course, the old AC regime also spoke of a “fight” four years ago, and even went so far as to call a strike against GM to bring pressure to bear in the negotiations—a strike that lasted 40 days, the longest strike at the so-called “Big 3” in 49 years.
But the tone of Fain’s remarks set his speech apart from ones given over the years by UAW officials. (Said Fain, for example: “The companies break the law all the time. What are we afraid of?”) He indicated his new administration was planning to mobilize the ranks. He didn’t discount a suggestion made at the Bargaining Convention that all three auto companies be struck at once, instead of settling, as usual, on one company, the so-called “target,” while the other two companies worked. He spoke about honoring picket lines put up by other unions, looking toward the Teamsters, who also have an important contract expiring this summer at UPS, as well as to Canadian auto workers. All of this implied a different stance on the part of the new leadership.
Fain concluded the Convention with this remark: “When are we, all of us, going to rebuild our power as the working class? When are we going to reclaim our dignity as working people?”
It’s not the language we have grown used to hearing from union officials who aspire to “middle class” status for themselves. Most have long worked to erase all sense of class among the workers, speaking of industries like auto as providing “middle-class” jobs.
Maybe their words indicate that Fain and Browning are questioning the idea of whether the company/union “partnership” sold by the old regime for such a long time can work any more. Maybe they envision a struggle by auto workers that goes outside the usual one-company target.
Of course, it may be just words.
In any case, they both seem intent on using the upcoming contract negotiations to claw back some of the concessions that auto workers have given up in recent years, and particularly those implied in the term “two-tier,” concerning all the different gradations of wages and benefits which mark the plants today. Browning, at the Bargaining Convention, criticized the union for not attempting to gain back some of the concessions during the recent years of high company profits.
So, what would it mean to start with even just that perspective?
The question of “two-tier” is not just a question for auto. Behind Ford, GM and Chrysler/ Stellantis, is the same capitalist system that produced a steep decline in the standard of living of the whole laboring population during the 40 some years when concessions were being imposed on auto workers.
Since 1970, capitalism has been caught in the grip of an unresolved economic crisis. Facing it, the big corporations worked to maintain their own profits, even to expand them, by increasing the exploitation of labor. They benefitted from the diversion of public funds that should have been invested in such social needs as public transit, roads, schools, public health, etc.—all those services that add to or detract from the ordinary population’s standard of living.
Behind the auto companies are some of the biggest financial behemoths, which enjoyed a steady stream of revenue from the value produced in the auto plants and all the other major industries. The three auto companies are not just competing against each other for a bigger share of the auto market. They are competing against all the companies in a push to show Wall Street how high a level of profit they can drain from production.
In other words, the concessions imposed on auto workers over this whole 40-year period were simply the obvious sign of the increased exploitation with which Big Capital maintained itself in this period of crisis.2
Increased exploitation, a fact of life in the whole of capitalist society, will not be reduced by negotiations, nor by a strike at just one company—although a strike that begins at one of the three auto companies might provide the match touching off an explosion in all the auto plants, perhaps even spreading to the web of so-called “independent” parts plants that surround them. But that comes back to the question of the policy of the union going forward.
Some of the activists supporting Fain spoke about wanting to return the union to the one Reuther led. This meant, they said, a return to the day when a job in industries like auto, even if hard work, seemed to guarantee a standard of living which wasn’t marked by unremitting poverty. And, in fact, auto did provide such jobs—for a part of the working class. As older auto workers still note, auto once provided jobs that paid enough for workers to buy the cars they built—but, to repeat, for part of the working class only. Black workers can speak to what a small part of the working class that actually was, and they are not the only ones.
Auto, and other industries like auto, provided wages and benefits that let a part of the working class escape impoverishment—for the few decades during and immediately after World War II, the years when U.S. industry benefitted from the war’s destruction of its rivals. But the higher standard of living did not extend to the working class as a whole. Moreover, unemployment was a way of life for auto workers during the 1950s when recurring recessions kept many workers out in the street so long that they lost their seniority.
In the 1950s, Reuther and other CIO leaders like him never once attempted to bring their troops from auto to carry out a wider social struggle. In fact, they were working to demobilize those troops that had come through a period of stormy strikes and demonstrations and sit-downs at the end of the 1930s to impose their union. It was a workforce that all through World War II had carried on wildcat strikes to resist the companies’ attempts to increase the intensity of work—defying a pledge Reuther and union leaders like him had made not to strike during the course of the war.
The role of Reuther and his heirs was to isolate auto workers from other parts of their class, to impose discipline on them, to break their independent initiative—these workers who as late as the 1970s were still trying to settle problems with activity on the shop floor. Reuther may have been a union organizer at the Ford gates in his earlier days, but he quickly became, like so many other bureaucrats before and after him, part of capitalism’s “political police,” pushing the working class into the iron embrace of the state apparatus imposed on the new unions.
When the push for concessions started, the better standard of living which auto conferred on some workers even became an albatross around their neck, pushing many to tolerate the life-shortening speed-up in the auto plants, for fear of losing the job’s “good wages” and its promise of a private pension at the end.
The 20-year detour American capitalism had made in mid-20th century, when a part of the working class lived somewhat comfortably, was never the golden era it is now depicted as being, and, whatever it was, it didn’t last. With the resurgence of the economic crisis, the big industrial companies started to pit lower-paid layers of the working class against those that had been “privileged.”3
This competition in which the workers found themselves thrown against each other took the form of “two-tier” in auto—the push to bring lower-paid workers into the same plant, working on the same line, doing the same job, but paid only half, getting few “benefits.” What was called “the drive for concessions” was nothing more than a return to the usual mode of capitalist functioning in the epoch of imperialism, a system that Reuther always defended..
So, no, the aim cannot be to drag the union back to the time of Reuther. The union today, mired in the swamp of “concessions,” is the one that Reuther and those like him dug the groundwork for. The aim of union militants has to be to rest on the capacity of workers to mobilize themselves across their divisions, the same capacity with which they built the CIO, and which tried to resist Reuther and all of Reuther’s heirs for so many years.
By 2019, anger in the plants over two-tier was palpable. It had expressed itself in the rejection of a negotiated contract in 2009 at Ford, and the rejection of one at Chrysler and near rejection of another at Ford, both in 2015. The Administration Caucus, which still led the UAW in 2019, let it be known coming into contract negotiations that its goal was to chip away at “two-tier,” at least in wages. It put in place the legalistic mechanisms required for calling a strike.4
The UAW leadership faced a vicious attack for daring even to threaten a strike. The U.S. attorney’s office in Michigan, which for five years had been carrying out a somewhat quiet investigation into “corruption” in the UAW, suddenly put the investigation onto the front pages. Two weeks before the contract expired and with negotiations going badly, the FBI staged well-publicized raids on the homes of key officials.
It sure looked like a warning that UAW leaders shouldn’t call for a strike.
When the strike was called, the news media made corruption the main story, even strongly implying that the strike was called in order to protect corrupt union leaders.
It’s not a surprise in bourgeois society, which drips corruption from its every pore, that a union would have some of its leaders give in to the temptation this corrupt society holds out.
But notice how corruption is dealt with when the corruption and criminality of big business occasionally sees the light of day. Big companies kill workers in their factories by keeping unsafe conditions—even if they are fined, no executives are charged. Norfolk and Southern Railroad carried toxic chemicals in unsafe conditions, ending up poisoning ground water, depriving a whole town of safe drinking water, and safe air to breathe. No jail time for the executives. And we’re still waiting to see what kind of fine might be imposed on the company. PG&E was actually convicted of mass murder when its poorly maintained electric lines destroyed whole towns, convicted not once, but twice—but no one went to jail. Big banks pile up profit by laundering millions of dollars from drug deals, and are celebrated for increasing payouts to shareholders. The real estate industry pushed mortgages so fraudulent that people were put at risk of losing their homes. Millions of people did. Those mortgage companies became the new darlings of Wall Street.
In thousands of cases like this, no executives are charged. No one goes to prison. Fines sometimes are issued. But what are fines but a slap on the wrist to multibillion dollar companies? But let a dozen people from a union—a dozen out of a union numbering just under 400,000—let those dozen unionists be caught padding an expense account or dipping into a joint company/union program funded by Chrysler, and compare what happens. They were indicted. Not surprisingly, few management people were indicted, despite the fact that Chrysler’s execs were the ones to initiate the corruption scheme. Chrysler, of course, was not put into a receivership, never had someone looking over its shoulder.
The union, however, found itself put under the control of a dictator. The government may call what it imposed a monitorship, but that’s nothing but a fancy name for a dictatorship by the bourgeois state over the union.
The monitorship was established under the fiction of a “consent decree.” “Consent”? Faced with the threat of a total government takeover of the union’s finances, headquarters, northern Michigan education center and buildings housing its local unions, the Executive Board “consented” to let a monitor be set up over the UAW, giving him the right to oversee its activities, its finances, its election of officers and other decision making for at least six years. If this was a “consent,” it was given just like the “consent” that victims of the mafia agreed to when given an “offer they couldn’t refuse.”
Yes, corruption needs to be weeded out of the union. It’s not a surprise that workers who pay dues every month feel that money was stolen from them. But the issue goes far beyond the question of money.
The corruption of even a few union leaders puts the whole union directly under the thumb of a totally corrupt society, just like giving in to a blackmailer who uses some private information about you to extort money can bind you to him for life.
It was not because of a money corruption that the UAW signed contracts instituting and maintaining two-tier. The bigger corruption was political: the union’s leaders believed that workers could not fight to prevent two-tier, that factories would be closed if they did, and that there was nothing that could prevent that. In the face of a society that leaves few legal avenues open to resist such demands, most unions opted to give in because they aren’t ready to step outside of this restrictive legal framework, and not because its leaders are corrupt.
To weed out corruption means to rest on the capacity of workers to control the organizations they are part of. There is no shortcut. To join in an alliance with the state apparatus of a corrupt society—whose billions and trillions in wealth are stolen from labor—how does that encourage the working class to mobilize its forces independently?
Nonetheless, some people who had been active in the UAW, opposing earlier concessions contracts, focused on the issue of corruption, repeating what the media said about the union, ignoring the role of the capitalist state. They used the corruption to reinforce their call for a “direct election” of top union officers. In 2019, they coalesced with others to form a small intra-union opposition that called itself UAWD (Unite All Workers for Democracy).
Neil Barofsky, appointed monitor in 2021 by a U.S. district court, quickly proposed a vote-by-mail referendum by the membership, giving the appearance that he was responding to a push by the ranks and that the members would decide “democratically” whether to have such an election.
Certainly no one should claim that the old convention system, despite its trappings of democracy, let the concerns and wishes of the ranks be heard. Much less, did workers make the decisions about the direction of the UAW.
But let’s not play with words about “democracy”– as some in UAWD did when they pretended that workers were given a voice through this by-mail consultation. What kind of democracy is it when each worker in the privacy of his or her own home receives a ballot, individually marks it, returns it by mail, without ever taking part in a meeting to discuss the issues, nor, in the case of an election, the candidates, nor what policy they stood for, nor what the union’s policy should be? An atomized, vote-by-mail consultation has nothing in common with workers’ democracy.
The number of UAW members who participated in the referendum or in the direct election that followed—15% or less—did not present a picture of involvement by the ranks. Even so, the election provided a cover for the draconian powers invested in the monitorship by the federal courts.
The monitor can intrude into the UAW’s finances and all its activities but contract negotiations. He can impose penalties and sanctions, including removal from office, or expulsion from the union of any officer or member he deems to have violated labor law or the conditions of the monitorship. He can ban them from the union and can expel any worker who “associates with” someone banned, with no recourse in an ordinary court proceeding. The monitor was given the right to set up all rules governing elections, including the criteria allowing someone to run. It was at the behest of the monitor that the UAW Constitution was modified in order to prevent retirees from running for top office, despite retirees having been local officers in the past and even delegates to the most recent convention. And the monitor dredged up the old McCarthy-period anti-communist clause prohibiting communists from holding office, a clause which had been made a dead-letter by court challenges in the 1970s.
This monitorship exists for six years, able to be extended or ended upon a petition by the monitor to the district court that appointed him. The monitorship—with all its “investigative” and “compliance” powers—is an implicit threat hanging over the head of the new leaders of the UAW, and over every activist who might propose to organize a struggle going outside the legalisms that determine labor relations in this country. For example, spreading a strike to workers not “implicated” by the contract is illegal under current U.S. labor law, and someone who successfully engaged workers in doing so could be subject to the monitor’s sanctions.
It was the same kind of state dictatorship—a monitorship overseen by the federal courts—that removed Ron Carey from the presidency of the Teamsters union (IBT), and from membership in the union for life. The actions against Carey were taken after the end of a very effective nationwide strike he led at UPS, although they are based on actions that supposedly occurred during his re-election campaign for IBT president more than a year earlier. The 1997 strike was the first open challenge to continuation of a two-tier system, which in the IBT rested on part-time workers. The limits set on part-timers by the contract were soon unwound, after Carey was removed.
A jury acquitted Carey of the criminal charges the monitor asked to be brought against him in court; nonetheless, his union membership was not reinstated. That decision lay not with the jury that found him innocent, not with the ranks of the union, but only with the monitor.
At that time, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which UAWD refers to in its written material, abstained from giving Carey even half-hearted support when he faced government attack, excusing itself by saying that Carey perhaps had not been prudent enough in watching how his supporters collected money for his campaign.
The state is not neutral, not an innocent bystander, and it has never been. Look at what recently happened when railway workers voted to turn down a contact “mediated” by a government panel: Biden and Congress declared the strike illegal. Workers always face the possibility that a repressive apparatus in the service of the capitalist class and directly opposed to the workers’ class interests will intervene against them. It’s necessary that militants try to prepare workers so they are not shaken when it happens.
The direct election of officers of the UAW, which allowed for the defeat of the Administration Caucus, may have been imposed by the monitor. But that shouldn’t stop any activist from speaking out strongly against the state intervention the monitor represents. To not do so, or to do so only in a formal, half-hearted way—like that quoted in Labor Notes, for example—means to help disarm the workers in front of a repressive force that will work to support the workers’ class enemy.
The contracts governing the wages, benefits and working conditions of workers at Ford, GM and Chrysler/Stellantis expire at midnight September 14. The decades-long economic crisis has extended and deepened, as the inflation and bank failures show. The scheme to electrify the auto industry—perhaps maybe ten or twenty years from now—is the Trojan Horse slipped into the auto plants, justifying a further reduction in the number of workers, even while they work in plants today putting out gasoline-powered vehicles. The three auto companies, with the financial system behind them, view the concessions as their permanent conquests—everything points to it. Lurking there in the shadows, waiting to pounce if the union does move, is the monitor.
In other words, even the attempt to take back some of the concessions is likely to run up against a stone wall that will require far more than negotiations, more than a determined strike at one company to break it down.
A planning document leaked to the press by Fain’s campaign envisions carrying out a “corporate” campaign, whose purpose would be to make the union’s case to gain “public support” for the union. And it plans on bringing in “sympathetic” bourgeois politicians like Bernie Sanders to speak at an auto workers’ rally—in other words, the kind of public relations gimmicks that the SEIU was known for, with workers called on occasionally to put up “informational pickets” in front of a company’s headquarters, or the home of an executive.
Certainly, there are lots of ways the workers can begin to mass their forces. And workers might enjoy making an excursion to embarrass a company executive at his or her mansion. But the vicious reality workers confront today shows that the problem is a political one. The issue is the one Fain, himself, broached at the Bargaining Convention: when does the working class begin to step forward as the working class? When rebuild its power? How use its power?
The lowering of the workers’ standard of living—that is, the imposition of concessions—did not depend on what one boss does. It comes from what capitalist society overall is doing. The question is, what can auto workers do that could let them face up to this social reality? That is, how can they begin to act as part of their class?
Auto workers, in fact, don’t stand alone. They are first of all a concentrated force, with over 150,000 active workers in just three companies, and more than double that number of retired workers, a large share of whom live close to the plants and feel directly implicated by what the UAW does. And all of them are linked with how many hundreds of thousands of workers more in other industries, through their neighborhoods, families, nearby companies, churches, sports teams and so on.
There is no reason, other than the habit imposed on auto workers by long years, that they should fight at only one auto company, and only when the contract expires, when three auto companies effectively share the same contract.
There are many possibilities beyond just the three companies: all those “independent” parts plants, for example, the majority of which were once part of what then really was a “Big 3,” with the same wages and benefits. The parts plants were the means of first introducing two-tier into the auto industry, and until the issue is taken on there, two-tier can only be a fact of life in auto.
There are other industries, too, connected to auto, first of all the medical insurance industry and the trucking industry. The IBT itself has a major contract expiring the end of July with UPS, and the UAW has a contract expiring at the end of August with Blue Cross.
But the issue goes beyond contracts and their expirations. Every company has, in its own way, a kind of “two-tier arrangement.” Workers in other sectors, other parts of the economy, have as much reason to try to reverse their situation as do the auto workers.
Obviously, it’s not enough to call out, “everyone join us,” in order to see masses jump in. The first obstacle any union would run up against, even just talking about a wider strike involving other workers, is the range of labor laws that make strikes illegal outside of very narrow limits.
But, as Fain said, the companies do illegal things, so what is the union afraid of? Of course, it’s not so simple as that. But that view could certainly inform the way the union and all the militants in it talk about and prepare for what needs to be faced in the coming period.
It is necessary now to address the issue, to raise the possibility that auto workers could begin a fight with the perspective of bringing others in with them. Discussing it doesn’t make it happen, but it does begin to prepare workers not only for the fight they will have to make, but for the reality of the attacks they will face if they dare to make it.
And that is the final issue: if auto workers do fight, they will find themselves facing the monitor/dictator who today sits on top of their union, as well as the repressive forces of the state of which he is the emanation.
The working class has lots of ways, forces really, that can let it range itself against a repressive state intent on breaking a strike. But it’s necessary that workers be aware that this is part of the fight that will have to be made, even just to take back some of the concessions made in earlier years. It’s necessary that workers who want to organize a fight be prepared for that. This is, before anything else, a moral preparation, based on the understanding that the state is the enemy of the working class, but one that workers have the forces to overcome.
The issue is not whether Fain, Browning and others understand that. The question is are there enough militants, revolutionary militants fighting for this perspective.
1 For more information about the imposition of Reuther’s Administration Caucus on the union and its role in holding back the mobilization of auto workers in the early years, and in imposing the concessions on the ranks in the later years, see the first article in the Auto Annex at the end of this magazine, “To Break the Stranglehold of the Administration Caucus”, 2010.
2 For a more detailed look at the concessions imposed on auto workers, one after the other, see the second article in the Auto Annex of this magazine, “Spinning Off Parts Plants Led to Two-Tier in Assembly”, 2008.
3 For more information about capitalism’s drive to set parts of the working class into competition with each other, see the fourth article in the Auto Annex at the end of this magazine. “Solidarity Is More than Just a Song, It’s the Workers’ Lifeblood”, 1999.
4 See the third article in the Auto Annex at the end of this magazine for information about that 40-day strike, and specifically about the extent to which it attracted not only the attention of other workers, but also the activities of some. “The GM Strike”, 2019.
Following this article is an Auto Annex, which includes two Class Struggle articles from earlier years, and two based on earlier articles. All of these articles give useful information and analysis about the development of concessions and of the regime inside the UAW. These articles are: