DETROIT — For the United Auto Workers, the past five years have been one of the most troubling chapters in the union’s history.
A federal investigation found widespread corruption, with a dozen top officials, including two former presidents, convicted of embezzling more than $1 million in union funds for luxury travel and other lavish personal expenses. Since last year, the union has been under the scrutiny of a court-appointed supervisor tasked with ensuring anti-corruption reforms are carried out.
The scandal has tarnished a once-powerful organization and left many of its 400,000 active members angry and disillusioned.
“I bet I’m mad,” said Bill Bagwell, who has been in the UAW for 37 years and works at a General Motors parts depot in Ypsilanti, Michigan, represented by Local 174. “That was our money, Workers. money. I don’t like people stealing our money.”
Now UAW members have a chance to determine how much they want to break with that past. In one of the changes caused by the corruption scandal, the union will choose its leaders this year through a direct election, the first. Until now, the president and other top officials were chosen by delegates to a convention, a system in which the union’s executive board could shape the outcome through favors and favoritism, and the results did not always reflect the views of the rank and file. .
“Everyone in power is in a party, and it’s been that way forever,” said William Parker, a retired worker who is eligible to vote and hopes to see a new slate of officers take over. “But now we have one man, one vote, and we are mobilizing for change.”
Over four days last week at a sometimes chaotic convention in Detroit, some 900 delegates debated a wide range of issues facing the union. Four members were nominated to challenge incumbent President Ray Curry in the fall election. Under rules approved by stewards, the union’s nearly 600,000 retirees can vote but cannot run for executive office. If no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the vote, the top two will compete in a second round.
Convention proceedings dragged on each day as members stepped to the microphones to offer motions, objections, and requests for clarification. A day after voting to increase stipends for striking workers from $400 to $500 a week, they rescinded the measure. At least three times Mr. Curry was scheduled to give a State of the Union address only for lengthy debates to force adjournments, and the convention adjourned without his address.
Mr. Curry is seen as a heavy favorite for re-election. He has held high office for more than a decade and became president in 2021 as a result of the corruption scandal.
One potentially serious challenger is Shawn Fain, an electrician who has been a member of the UAW for 28 years and holds a staff position at the union headquarters. He is on a slate of candidates for high office and is backed by a dissident group, Unite All Workers for Democracy, which has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the election campaign.
“Members have to believe in the leadership and believe that corruption is behind us,” said Mr. Fain.
The other candidates are Brian Keller, a quality worker at Stellantis who for years has run a Facebook group critical of the union’s leadership; Will Lehman, a worker at a Mack Truck plant in Pennsylvania; and Mark Gibson, president of Local 163 in Westland, Michigan.
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The challengers and Mr. Curry agree on most of the key issues at stake in next year’s contract negotiations. Members want automakers to resume cost-of-living wage adjustments, once a key element of UAW contracts, and to eliminate compensation differences between newer and more senior workers. Workers hired in 2007 or earlier earn the full UAW wage of about $32 an hour and have guaranteed pensions. Workers hired after 2007 started at lower wages and can work up to the maximum wage for five years. They get a 401(k) retirement account instead of a pension.
Dorian Fenderson, a UAW member at a GM location in Warren, Michigan, started a year ago as a temp at $17 an hour and after four months was hired permanently, earning $22 an hour.
“There are people who make $34 doing the same job as me,” he said. “I know they’ve been here a long time, but it’s really not fair to people like me.”
Opposition candidates have called for the UAW to take a more confrontational line in contract negotiations to win back concessions now that manufacturers are solidly profitable and pressure them to keep more production in the United States and use more unionized labor. GM is building four battery plants in a joint venture and Ford Motor is building three with its own partner. The union will have the opportunity to organize those plants, but success is not guaranteed.
“We are losing jobs and that has to stop,” Fain said.
Mr. Curry said he was confident battery plants would be organized and workers would be covered by UAW contracts with automakers. He said similar joint ventures had been represented by the union in the past, noting that current contracts allocate engine production to the UAW.
“Our belief is that batteries are the powertrain of electric vehicles,” he said in an interview. “It’s just new technology. We have the right to negotiate that and establish those places.”
One possible weakness for Curry could be recent actions that have rankled some members. He and his executive board members recently raised wages and pensions for themselves and others who work at union headquarters. A vice president running for re-election spent $95,000 of union funds on backpacks that were embroidered with his name and would be given out to members at union meetings, a move that could be construed as using union money for the campaign. of the.
In a July report, court-appointed monitor Neil Barofsky wrote that he had 19 open investigations into possible wrongdoing and said Curry’s leadership group had been uncooperative at times. Mr. Barofsky, a lawyer for a New York firm, wrote that union leaders had uncovered mishandling of union funds by a senior official but had covered up the matter, though he added that cooperation and transparency had improved in recent months.
Mr. Curry said that once he became aware of the communication problems with the monitor, he stepped in and addressed the matter.
“You have to read the report to the end, and at the end the monitor talks about true transparency, response time, and the change of counsel, the steps that we have taken to show that we are moving in a positive direction,” he said. “And I asked the monitor, if he has problems, to come directly to me so that I don’t read it in a report four months later.”
Mr. Barofsky declined to comment beyond the findings of his report.
Decades ago, the UAW was a powerful organization that could influence presidential elections and consistently won pay and benefit increases, often through strikes and tough negotiations. His contracts with GM, Ford, and Chrysler set standards that helped raise wages and benefits for working classes across the country, both union and non-union.
But his fortunes faded as Detroit automakers steadily scaled back their US operations and struggled to compete as Toyota, Honda, Nissan and other foreign automakers built non-union plants across the South. The 2009 bankruptcy filings of GM and Chrysler forced the union to make once-unthinkable concessions, including a two-tier pay structure.
Over the past 10 years, automakers have bounced back, often with record profits, and unionized workers have benefited. Last year, GM paid a $10,250 profit-sharing bonus to each of its UAW employees. But on other fronts, the union is still in retreat. A 40-day strike in 2019 failed to prevent GM from closing a plant in Lordstown, Ohio, and workers have had no cost-of-living wage adjustments since 2009.
The corruption investigation was launched around 2014 by the United States Attorney in Detroit and ultimately found schemes that embezzled more than $1.5 million from membership dues and $3.5 million from training centers. Top union officials used the money to buy expensive cigars, wine, spirits, golf clubs, clothing, and luxury travel.
More than a dozen UAW officials have pleaded guilty. As part of a consent decree to settle the investigation, the US District Court in Detroit appointed Mr. Barofsky to monitor the UAW’s efforts to become more democratic and transparent.
In July, a former UAW president, Gary Jones, was released from federal prison after serving less than nine months of a 28-month sentence. Another former frontman, Dennis Williams, served nine months of his 21-month sentence. Other convicted officials were also released after serving less than half of their sentences.
At last week’s convention, the shortened sentences were a source of frustration for many attendees, but as proceedings progressed, many endorsed the positions of Mr. Curry and the current executive board on the issues that arose.
David Hendershot, a forklift driver at a Ford plant in Rawsonville, Michigan, said he wanted the union to push for higher wages in next year’s contract negotiations and was unhappy with the corruption that ensued. But he isn’t sure he wants a complete change in leadership. “I’ll probably stick with what we have,” he said.