UAW at a Crossroads
Statement of the United Front Committee for a Labor Party
October 20, 2022
On Monday, the United Auto Workers began mailing out ballots for the election of the union’s International Executive Board, its highest governing body. This is the first election in the history of the UAW in which every member will be able to vote directly for the leadership of their union.
This historic election comes two months after the UAW held its once-in-four-years Constitutional Convention—the first convention in which rank-and-file members were able to put themselves up for election to the union leadership.
These and other changes to UAW rules were put in place by a 2-1 vote in a union-wide referendum, which was part of a consent agreement with the federal government, after 17 executives were federally indicted for embezzlement and racketeering. The corruption scandal, which began in 2017, has rocked the union leadership, many of whom are implicated in taking company bribes and stealing dues money from the membership. The federal government has also installed a monitor, who in July issued a report on the leadership’s lack of transparency and violation of the terms of the consent agreement.
The imposition of more democratic processes by the federal government has opened up some new possibilities for militant workers, but no confidence should be placed in the capitalist state to democratize the union. The new rules leave the bureaucratic apparatus untouched. It retains its function as a proxy of management, whose role it is to negotiate and enforce concessionary contracts in the workers’ name. The interventions of the capitalist state are not aimed at truly democratizing the union, but at providing its bureaucratic apparatus with a veneer of democracy, in order to preserve its legitimacy in the eyes of workers and stabilize it as an instrument of labor management. That the American government felt the need to intervene in union affairs is itself a damning indictment of the rot at the heart of the UAW, and exposes the character of the bureaucracy as a junior partner of the capitalists. The union belongs to the workers! The rank-and-file must demand: feds and bureaucrats alike, out of the UAW!
The Movement for Union Democracy
Only a movement from below can truly bring democracy back to our union. Recent reform efforts have been led by Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a grassroots movement of UAW members from around the country, which commanded substantial influence at this year’s convention. The Administration Caucus, which has ruled the UAW for decades, usually sets the agenda for the conventions in a choreographed series of speeches and Administration Caucus-sponsored resolutions. But at this year’s convention, they were unable to prevent resolutions drafted by the rank-and-file and passed by union locals from reaching the floor for discussion.
UAWD-sponsored resolutions included one to start strike pay from day one instead of day eight, and increase strike pay from $275 to at least $400 per week. The International Executive Board (IEB) voted for the pay increase just prior to the convention, in an effort to take the initiative from UAWD, but convention delegates went a step further, passing the resolution to begin strike pay from day one and increasing strike pay to $500 per week, at the initiative of a striking Case tractor factory worker.
A UAWD-drafted resolution calling for the UAW to amend its constitution to require it to oppose contracts with tiered pay and benefits also made it to the floor and was the subject of extensive debate, but was ultimately defeated. The two-tier system has been backed by the Administration Caucus as supposedly the only way to save autoworkers’ jobs in the face of company cost-cutting and outsourcing. It is both a betrayal of the newer members and a weapon against the demands of the more senior members, and it is a wedge which the management and bureaucracy use to divide the union membership.
On the final day of the convention, the Administration Caucus attempted to reassert its authority by forcing a revote on the increase in strike pay. Many of the delegates had already returned home by this point, and the Administration Caucus, working behind the scenes to pressure delegates, was able to rescind the increase in pay. These are the actions of a bureaucracy that is so used to ruling, it doesn’t know how to respond to rank-and-file opposition, and clumsily exposes itself in its efforts to retain control.
Another telling episode from the convention was the refusal of the Administration Caucus-dominated International Executive Board to invite a contingent of GM workers from Silao, Mexico—who recently founded the independent union SINTTIA—to attend the convention. Instead, they invited the so-called Solidarity Center—an international operation of the AFL-CIO—which receives $75 million per year in corporate and federal money from the National Endowment for Democracy. The AFL-CIO has a long history of collaborating with the CIA and American government in suppressing workers’ struggles, propping up corporatist trade unions against independent unions, and overthrowing governments around the world, including in Brazil, Guatemala, Guyana, and the Dominican Republic. They worked to sabotage a peasant movement in El Salvador, supported the apartheid regime in South Africa, and participated in backing right-wing unions in Chile prior to the 1973 coup, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands (see also, the Labor Education Project on AFL-CIO International Operations). While the multinational corporations have spread production all over the globe, the AFL-CIO prevents workers from mounting an effective response by organizing internationally. In the age of globalization, the only way to rebuild the labor movement is on an international basis, and this means a rebellion against the AFL-CIO.
The Radical Roots of the UAW
There is a long history of militant working-class struggle in the UAW. Following a long decline of the craft unions organized in the American Federation of Labor (AFL)—long-controlled by their own ossified bureaucracies—the onset of the Great Depression and a wave of militant struggles opened a new era in the American Labor Movement. In 1934, a wave of powerful general strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toledo, led by socialists and left-wing workers, showed that the organized working class could defeat the employers.
This eruption of class struggle gave a powerful impetus to the development of the Labor Movement. The following year, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was founded, originally as a committee within the AFL, and then, after it was forced out, as an independent organization of industrial unionists. The UAW, also founded in 1935, was divided from its inception between a group aligned with the radical-led CIO and a group aligned with the conservative, class-collaborationist AFL. Due to the efforts of militant workers and socialists, the UAW followed the CIO out of the AFL, and went on to grow rapidly. The 44-day Flint Sit-down Strike of 1937 forced General Motors to recognize the UAW, and within the next few years, it also won recognition from Chrysler and Ford.
The power of auto workers during the period of the UAW’s founding came from taking direct action on the shop floor to stop production. This approach was successful in protecting the health and safety of workers and also in stopping the firing of union militants and rank-and-file leaders. There was also significant support at this time for the formation of a Labor Party, independent of both the Democrats and Republicans.
The nature of the UAW gradually changed in the following years, as the union became established and took on a dual role as both the negotiator and enforcer of labor contracts. In March 1939, a group of ten UAW locals led by Trotskyists came together to support the formation of a Labor Party and to keep power in the hands of the rank and file. This was opposed by a conservative faction led by Walter Reuther and a faction led by the Communist Party, but the Trotskyists’ Union Building Program was adopted, along with a resolution calling for the formation of a Labor Party in the United States. However, the leadership of the CIO remained subordinate to the Democratic Party.
In the World War II era, the UAW’s Executive Board signed a no-strike pledge to assist the American war effort. This was backed by the Communist Party. After the war, communists and class struggle militants were systematically purged from the trade unions. The AFL and CIO merged into a single anti-communist and pro-imperialist alliance, and the labor movement went into sharp decline. The Administration Caucus began its life during this period as an anti-communist grouping founded by then-UAW president Walter Reuther, who remained president until his death in 1970. The Reuther leadership vehemently opposed the militant tactics that had built the UAW, and they eventually signed contracts that ended this power on the job, while solidifying their own leadership.
The UAW bureaucracy became little more than an adjunct of the Democratic Party. At a UAW convention in San Diego in 1995, then-President Bill Clinton, who had been invited to speak, told union leaders that he would support NAFTA whether they liked it or not. After this speech, the craven UAW officials gave him a standing ovation despite his open declaration that he would push deindustrialization via this corporate trade program. The UAW and AFL-CIO tops have been right behind not only Clinton but also Trump, who passed the USMCA, a trade agreement replacing NAFTA that is aimed at further consolidating the North American trading bloc in preparation for conflict with China.
Today, Flint, Michigan—the site of one of the great victories of American labor—is a decaying city in the deindustrialized area around Detroit, known to most Americans as the town whose residents were poisoned by their water supply. Flint is emblematic of the decay of American capitalism and the defeats of the Labor Movement. Yet after a lifetime of rule by the Administration Caucus, which has overseen one concessionary contract after another and helped run the Labor Movement into the ground, rank-and-file workers have shown that there is still a spark of life in the UAW.
Almost a century ago, American Trotskyist James P. Cannon described the Flint Sit-down strike in these terms: “The revolt, which no bureaucracy could contain, was spearheaded by new people—the young mass production workers, the new young militants whom nobody had ever heard of…” The strike was propelled by the “bitter and irreconcilable grievances of the workers: their protest against mistreatment, speedup, insecurity; the revolt of the pariahs against their pariah status.”
Today, after decades of attacks on living and working conditions, there is a new generation of workers who are being driven into struggle against the capitalists and the union bureaucracies. A wave of strikes, unionization drives, and renewed working-class militancy has shown that workers will not continue to accept endless wage cuts, sellout contracts, and attacks on their livelihoods. It is up to this new generation of workers to return the UAW to its radical roots, sweep away the bureaucracy, and turn the union back into a weapon to defend the rights of working people.
Reformism and Sectarianism: Two dead-ends for the working class
The Administration Caucus has clearly been taken aback by the level of support and organization among the rank-and-file for the upstart reform movement. But now that they know the strength of this movement, they will make every effort to crush and disperse it.
Three weeks after the convention, UAW Region 1 “CAP Coordinator” Brian Negovan flagrantly violated the “Official Rules for the 2022 International Officer Election” by attempting to prohibit campaign leaflets from being passed out outside a meeting of a retirees chapter. UAW Presidential candidate Will Lehman’s campaign has reported a similar act of intimidation by Local 598 District Committeeman Sean Meachem, who confronted Lehman and a team of volunteers who were leafleting outside a GM plant, took photographs of them, and called GM security to remove them from the premises.
Lehman—the only avowed socialist in the campaign—has rightly highlighted the Administration Caucus’s use of intimidation tactics, something that UAWD has failed to do. He has won a hearing in the UAW for raising issues no other campaign will broach: above all, the need to entirely dismantle the bureaucratic machine and replace it with democratic institutions controlled by workers themselves. He was the only candidate, in the election’s one presidential debate, to speak to the real conditions workers face, to attack not only the current bureaucrats but the bureaucratic apparatus itself, and to call for organizing workers on an international basis.
Lehman’s campaign—conducted by the Socialist Equality Party, which publishes the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS)—has centered on “abolishing the bureaucracy” and calls on union members to form so-called “rank-and-file committees” as an alternative. But the SEP’s committees are not broad-based organizations aiming to draw in the widest possible layers of militant workers and educate them in the class struggle. Rather, the SEP insists that the committees must be in full political agreement with itself on all issues. Hence, these committees are typically founded by and subordinate to the party, and generally consist of only a few members.
Workers want and need organizations they control, which give them a voice and allow them to become active agents in fighting for their own lives and livelihoods. The role of a Marxist is to aid the workers in their struggles for political independence and to fight for a revolutionary political perspective. This requires that Marxists immerse themselves in the movement, not section themselves off into isolated committees, which are doomed to sterility and irrelevance. It requires a willingness to build United Fronts, capable of drawing into struggle as many workers as possible, including those who have not yet come to revolutionary conclusions. Marxists must fight intransigently for a revolutionary program, but they do not demand that workers adopt all their positions as a precondition for uniting around common, transitional demands.
The “Trotskyists” in the SEP would do well to recall the 1938 discussion between Trotsky and Cannon on whether the Socialist Workers Party should support the movement in the CIO for the formation of a Labor Party. Trotsky called for the SWP to join these efforts as a necessary tactic for organizing the mass trade union movement politically, while maintaining an independent existence and revolutionary program for the SWP. Trotsky concludes, “To say that we will fight against opportunism, as of course we will fight today and tomorrow, especially if the working-class party had been organized, by blocking a progressive step which can produce opportunism, is a very reactionary policy, and sectarianism is often reactionary because it opposes the necessary action of the working class…”
Indeed, the SEP has long since gone over to an outright reactionary position, attacking the trade unions in general, and calling for workers to leave them for their own committees. For the purposes of this campaign, they now claim that they seek to abolish the bureaucracy, not the union itself, since the latter would make their campaign an obvious absurdity. This is pure sophistry, as a brief look at their past positions makes clear. In a WSWS article, “The middle-class ‘left’ and the UAW-GM contract”, published October 12, 2007, the authors write: “The Socialist Equality Party would advise workers, should the UAW come to their plant, to vote to keep it out. Joining the UAW would not advance workers’ interests one iota.” Elsewhere, WSWS refuse to differentiate between the union and its bureaucracy, calling the UAW an “agency of corporate management” and stating that their task is to “destroy, not bolster, the ‘persuasive power’ of the UAW and to build a powerful political alternative.” Last year, WSWS called for a “No” vote for the unionization of an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Again and again, the website calls for the replacement of the trade unions by rank-and-file committees, i.e. the abolition of the former, even to the point of opposing the organization of unorganized plants—a direct attack on the union and the working class. Such backward positions not only discredit the SEP—they give priceless ammunition to the bureaucracy, which can and will be used against other revolutionaries in the UAW.
Rather than criticizing the SEP on this basis, the left-wing media outside WSWS has instituted an unprincipled black-out of Lehman’s campaign.
In contrast to the SEP, UAWD took the initiative in mobilizing pro-reform elements across the UAW during both the ‘one-member-one-vote’ campaign and the convention. Their platform calls for abolishing the multi-tier system, opposes corruption and the existing labor-management partnership, and has put forward the old slogan ‘30 Hours Work for 40 Hours Pay’ in answer to the mass-layoffs brought about by automation and cost-cutting. However, UAWD fails to even address the issues that Lehman’s campaign has raised, and limits its aims to superficial reforms rather than building the organizations the rank and file will need to confront the Administration Caucus. Their presidential candidate, Shawn Fain, attacks individual bureaucrats but scoffs at the idea that the bureaucracy itself must be dismantled. Fain often hails the anti-communist Reuther as representing the supposed good old days of the UAW. While the UAWD platform calls, in vague terms, for “international solidarity” and makes a meek call for a “re-examination” of the UAW’s relationship with the Democrats, they have not pressed these issues in the IEB campaign and have provided little in the way of a concrete program. They have run, on the whole, an insipid, pro forma campaign, completely lacking in militancy. It is little wonder that they have proved unable to mobilize mass support in the union after the convention.
Perhaps most glaringly, neither UAWD nor the SEP has publicized the ongoing strike of 700 Case tractor factory workers in Racine, Wisconsin, or attempted to use their campaigns to mobilize workers across the UAW to defend the strike.
Neither of these camps is capable of bringing real change to the UAW. What is needed is a true oppositional caucus, committed to building a mass movement in the UAW that will sweep the bureaucracy out of the union and replace it with new institutions of worker democracy. Until such a caucus exists, revolutionaries should work both in UAWD and outside of it, building United Fronts with the reform forces around certain demands, while openly criticizing reformism and fighting for a revolutionary perspective.
An oppositional caucus can only exist if it is absolutely independent of the Democrats, which led the bureaucratization of the unions, and have spent decades, together with their “Republican colleagues,” dismantling all that is left of the old Labor Movement. The first political task for a renewed Labor Movement will be to carry out a struggle against the Democrat-aligned bureaucracies and pose a political alternative: a mass democratic Labor Party in the United States.
The critical fight is to organize the large number of auto plants in the South, the Midwest, and Mexico. This has been an abject failure by the business-unionist officialdom of the UAW. We need to win these organizing fights by supporting a mass movement of workers in these communities that backs up organizing with direct action. This is how the UAW was built.
The Fight in the UAW in a New Era of Class Struggle
Workers all over the United States are suffering from the same conditions as UAW workers. They are dealing with the same sell-out bureaucrats and the same bosses who want to make profits on their backs. More layoffs and speedups are in store. We have to unite as a class to shut down industry because that is the only way we will win our demands. Negotiations do not result in any victories without militant struggles. When workers see the power they have through mass mobilizations, there is no stopping that power.
Workers must reclaim the ability to take direct action on the job to protect health and safety and prevent contract violations. The NLRB will not help us. The Biden Administration has underfunded and understaffed this agency while the federal government has provided $120 million for so-called “democracy” union work in Mexico.
The auto companies aim to further gut the auto industry as they transition to the production of less labor-intensive electric vehicles. Auto workers and other UAW members should take up UAWD’s call for equal pay for a shorter work week, so that no one need lose their job, and workers can benefit from the enormous technological advances their labor has made possible.
The union movement must take as its starting point the international unity of the working class against the capitalist class and its political parties. In the UAW, this means building direct international links with other workers at GM, Ford, Caterpillar, and all other auto, truck, farm machinery and parts companies around the world, and taking direct action internationally with our fellow workers when they need it. We cannot allow the bosses to pit workers here against those in other countries, or pit our members against each other with two-tier wages and substandard contracts. We need real union solidarity in action.
With no one in Washington representing their interests, many working-class people, including some in the UAW, have turned to the faux populism of the Republican Party, which is now moving toward fascism and dictatorship. The issues of growing racist attacks and the rise of fascism were not debated or even brought up at the UAW 2022 Convention by any grouping, but these issues are critical not only to UAW members and their families but the entire working class. In the past, the UAW supported the struggles against racism and the right to vote in the South, yet the present bureaucracy refuses to support a mobilization against the danger of a fascist coup. Instead, they rely on the Democrats. UAWD should link up with the Vermont AFL-CIO, which is fighting to build a democratic Labor Movement and organize the working class against the threat of another coup by the fascists in the Republican Party. We also need to defend Black, Brown, and Asian members, who face increasing racist attacks in the plants and in our communities.
There is also a growing threat of a catastrophic war between the US and China and Russia. The UAW, as one of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO, has long supported US imperialism around the world. We must end the trillions of dollars that are spent for the war machine while our cities and communities are falling apart and working people don’t have affordable housing, healthcare, or a good public education system. Both the Democrats and Republicans are bipartisan when it comes to more wars and privatization. We need to organize a national fight against wars abroad and privatization of public education, public services, and public lands. The enemies of UAW members are not Mexican or Chinese auto workers and the people of these countries, but the billionaires and capitalist class that are exploiting people throughout the world and use xenophobia, racism, and nationalism to pit worker against worker.
In this time of social collapse, we must rebuild our unions and take the first steps toward a Labor Party, founded and controlled by working people. Only such a party, capable of organizing the entire working class, can successfully oppose the giant transnational corporations and open a new era in the struggle for socialism.