Labor Front

Are Unions Getting Off Their Knees?

Even as the UAW rank-and-file elects new leaders, Covid-hardened American workers are looking beyond legacy unions.


Will Lehman works the night shift on the assembly line at Mack Trucks’ Macungie, Pennsylvania, plant. During the day, he’s running to lead the million-member United Auto Workers union. According to his website, Lehman, an avowed socialist, is building what he calls “a mass movement of the rank-and-file to break the dictatorship of the UAW apparatus and bring power to the shop floor.”

At 34, Lehman is the youngest by a generation in the crowded field for president of the UAW, which was once considered a global model of a “progressive” and “squeaky clean” union but over the past few decades became captive to corrupt self-dealing on a breathtaking scale. Of late, the news media has zeroed in on a new generation of grassroots labor organizers, such as Chris Smalls, 34, who organized the independent Amazon Labor Union at the corporate behemoth’s Staten Island JFK8 warehouse. But not much attention has been focused on the generational tensions within established labor unions, which are often dominated by much older leaders who came to power in the 1970s, a time when unions had begun a steep decline.

By the end of 2021, after close to two years of a global pandemic that has now killed more than a million Americans, 47 million U.S. workers had walked away from their jobs. A recent Brookings Institute analysis found that “around 16 million working-age (those aged 18 to 65) have long COVID today,” and, “of those, two to four million are out of work due to long COVID.” In February 2022, PBS NewsHour reported, “Among the reasons for the current labor shortage in the U.S. is the exodus of older workers retiring early during the pandemic.” In addition, the still relatively robust job market, despite the Federal Reserve’s hike in interest rates, has offered workers options for changing jobs, and even careers. To grasp the scale of this shift, consider that the mass of Americans who left their current employment is roughly four times the size of the entirety of the 12.5 million membership of the AFL-CIO. Workers now have leverage not seen for decades, and the nation’s unions are scrambling to rise to the challenge. In some cases, such as within the Teamsters and the UAW, those challenges include shedding well-earned reputations for corrupt dealings at the very top of these legacy unions. 


Back in April, at a well-attended Amazon Labor Union rally held at Amazon’s sprawling Staten Island complex, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told me in an interview for Labor Press that younger people such as Smalls had no choice but to start their own independent unions because established labor had been missing in action for years. “People have had enough, and it’s not surprising that it’s being led by the next generation, because no one has laid down a path for them that works—they’re fighting, they’re talking about the same battles that we were talking about a hundred years ago, because we haven’t been willing to fight. Our density has decreased. So we don’t have the power that we had before, but we can claim it again and that’s what they’re doing here … The workers are making the case to labor…. People want a union and they’ve been sitting around waiting for labor to wake up to that and they’re done sitting around. They’re taking charge—they’re making their unions and we’re building a new labor movement.”


“This isn’t a question of a few bad individuals but of the bureaucracy as a whole. The UAW bureaucracy is part of management. There are 450 bureaucrats making over $100,000 in our dues money a year. The richest 15 UAW executives made a combined $3 million in 2021.”


There are changes afoot for legacy unions as well. For the first time in the 87-year history of the United Auto Workers, active members and retirees are voting directly for who will lead their union. (In the past, leadership elections were conducted based on a caucus and delegate system, which critics contend favored incumbents.) This unprecedented exercise in direct democracy for the UAW, overseen by a court-appointed independent monitor, is the consequence of a sprawling federal criminal prosecution that resulted in at least 15 felony convictions of national and regional union officials, as well as a handful of company executives. 

“The only reason there is an election is because the UAW leadership was convicted for taking bribes from the companies and selling us out,” Lehman said at a virtual UAW candidates’ town hall, in September. “This isn’t a question of a few bad individuals but of the bureaucracy as a whole. The UAW bureaucracy is part of management. There are 450 bureaucrats making over $100,000 in our dues money a year. The richest 15 UAW executives made a  combined $3 million in 2021.”

The other contenders to lead the union include the current UAW president, Ray Curry; Shawn Fain; Mark Gibson; and Brian Keller. In their opening statements at a September 22nd virtual candidates’ forum, Curry, Fain, Gibson, and Keller all emphasized their considerable leadership experience, while Fain and Keller took aim at the UAW’s track record. 

“I am running because I am sick of the complacency of our top leaders,” Fain stated, blasting the UAW leadership for viewing “the [auto] companies as our partners rather than our adversaries” and for feathering their own nests with “wage increases, early retirement bonuses, and pensions,” even as the rank-and-file failed to be made whole after major concessions made during the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

Said Keller, “I am running for international UAW president to help the membership reclaim the power and control of their union. I am also fighting to reclaim concessions granted these companies in the darkest of these times, and to make sure we educate the membership on all levels to help them defend themselves against management and rogue leadership.”


“The people that hold office now had over a decade to fix this,” Keller continued. ”Even after the 16 indictments and the companies making record profits, we continue to receive concessionary agreements. General Motors, back in 2018, made $11.8 billion; in 2019, they made $13.9 billion in net income. Ford made $3.7 billion in 2018, and in 2019 made $21.2 billion. Fiat Chrysler Automotive made $8.1 billion in 2018 and in 2019 made $6.7 billion. So with these people that hold office now why do we continue to receive concessionary agreements? Why haven’t we got back what we lost?”

Current UAW president Curry pushed back on the criticism, asserting that his team had cleaned up the union and had added thousands of new members outside the auto industry. “We are the key piece that removed the corruption out of our organization and led to all of the successful reforms that no one seems to remember are taking place today.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Fiat Chrysler [FCA US LLC], one of the Big Three automakers, spread $3.5 million around to get the UAW leadership to sell out the membership from 2009 through 2016. “FCA US LLC conspired to make improper labor payments to high-ranking UAW officials, which were used for personal mortgage expenses, lavish parties, and entertainment expenses,” said Irene Lindow, Special Agent-in-Charge with the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, back in March 2021, when the company was hit with a $30 million fine. The announcement from the Department of Justice continues, “Instead of negotiating in good faith, FCA corrupted the collective bargaining process and the UAW members’ rights to fair representation.”


That “lucky to have a job” Rust Belt reality was driven home every day in Pennsylvania’s nearby coal country, where the extraction business devoured entire generations of men, who died prematurely or were disabled with black lung disease.


Noted labor historian Joshua Freeman, a professor emeritus at Queens College at the City University of New York, tells the Voice, “From the mid-1930s through the 1960s, for a lot of people the UAW was a model of an American labor union. It cracked the fortress of the anti-unionism of the giant companies like GM and Ford [in the years leading up to WWII and during the war]. It was very socially progressive. It was squeaky clean in terms of corruption and it set standards along with the United Steel Workers for wages and benefits that lots of other union and non-union workers benefited from. It loomed very large in the American landscape.”

Freeman also notes that under the leadership of one of its founders, Walter Reuther, himself a socialist, the UAW evolved into “a one-party democracy where if you were not nominated by Reuther’s caucus, you did not have a chance.” But now, Freeman says, under the scrutiny of the independent monitor, the shift to direct democracy “is moving away from one of the less positive parts of the heritage of the union.”

Jane Latour is a labor historian and author of Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City. During a phone interview, she tells the Voice, “It was disgusting the way they [UAW leaders] were treating themselves, going to Palm Springs vacations, expensive liquor and cigars, all of this and all that money, and then you as a union member are working on an assembly line—hard deadening labor.”


Latour believes that this Soprano-esque union stereotype can turn off young people, who might be open to the idea of being part of a union but hesitate because of these high-profile cases of corruption. She adds that it’s noteworthy that the biggest victory in the latest wave of organizing was won by the independent union Chris Smalls and his team put together to win the vote to organize the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island.  Latour has observed that legacy unions such as the UAW “are often so bogged down in the samo-samo” that it’s hard for them to evolve—for example, in diversifying their ranks in terms of age, gender, or race—while also encouraging rank-and-file participation. “On the other hand,” she says, “it’s those established unions that are also most likely to have the resources you need—because the corporations are so determined to bust the unions and they have so much in the way of resources….” 

Back in 2017, Lehman was hired at Mack Trucks as what was classified as a “tiered” union member, one who, thanks to concessions made by the union going back years, doesn’t get a pension—because, as management implied to him, he was supposed to be “grateful” he had a job. As the UAW’s leverage weakened over the decades, the union, which had built itself on solidarity, had agreed to create a caste system that divided the rank-and-file union workforce into subcategories, described in contract language as “supplement employees” or “temporary part-timers.” This internalized corporate cost containment, which the union signed off on—as long as they could continue to collect the dues.

“I did not get to college—I couldn’t afford it,” Lehman tells the Voice during a recent phone interview. “I went to work for my grandfather’s small excavation business. We had very old equipment, so that’s where I learned how to work on equipment and vehicles like backhoes and bulldozers.” This was in Pennsylvania’s  Lehigh Valley, where the Lehman family business’s customers were folks who were holding out as long as they could before incurring the major expense of connecting to the municipal sewer system.

“Yeah, after digging up yards where the septic system had failed, I moved on to warehouse work and picking auto parts,” Lehman recalls. “Initially, when I got to Mack Truck, I thought this would be the best job I would ever have, but then I read some labor history. I started to see the glaring inequalities, as well as the gap between what the union actually is now on the shop floor versus what it could and should be based on the conception of what the union was supposed to be.”


That “lucky to have a job” Rust Belt reality was driven home every day in Pennsylvania’s nearby coal country, where the extraction business devoured entire generations of men, who died prematurely or were disabled with black lung disease. Says Lehman, “We have coal-mining-region folks that drive to work at Mack—those areas are now so depressed because they were based entirely on coal and we have the whole coal worker situation—that’s capitalism, just stripping the value out of everything and leaving.” He adds, “I see all the issues of the working class as related. That’s why we need a global alliance of rank-and-file workers around the world. I have spoken with workers around the world, in Germany, India, and Mexico.”

In our interview, Lehman also described how Ford recently pit unionized auto workers in Germany against their peers in Spain, when the multinational announced that they were shifting to producing electric cars and would be closing a plant in one of the two countries. “Ford told the unions to give their lowest bid for their labor. In this kind of environment we need to all be connected, wherever we are, to fight these multinationals,” he concludes.

Spain “won,” and the German plant will close in 2025. 

Today’s UAW includes workers not only in the auto industry but in the government sector, legal aid, higher education, hospitals, and nonprofit organizations. The union has more than 400,000 active members and more than 585,000 retired members in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. There are 600 local unions under contract, with more than 1,000 different employers.

Many of the places where UAW members work are extremely hazardous, workplaces where one missed step can lead to serious injury or even death. Back in June, Steven Dierkes, 39, a father of three and a UAW member, fell into a vat of molten iron just a few days after he started working at Caterpillar’s Mapleton, Illinois, foundry. Lehman contends that the union and the automakers failed to do sufficient contact tracing, and were too soon to return to production. 

According to archived UAW press releases over the course of the pandemic, union leadership appeared to be taking a hard line for worker safety at the time—on paper, at least. “Our members will not suffer any consequences for doing the right thing to protect us all by self-reporting,” wrote then-UAW president Rory L. Gamble, in May 2020. “It is up to all of us to ensure that we have swift reporting of any gaps in our defense against this pandemic.” UAW memorial webpage from early in the pandemic lists dozens of rank-and-file members who lost their lives to Covid.

Despite the high stakes in the current UAW election, it’s not clear just how engaged the active and retired members will be. Last year, by the wide margin of 140,586 to 89,615, members voted to have the national leadership selected by a direct rank-and-file vote for the first time in the union’s history. But the total number of voters still accounted for less than a third of the UAW’s active workers and retirees.

All UAW members in good standing as of October 31, 2022, are eligible to vote directly for their leaders. This includes members who are part-time workers and reinstated members, as well as retired members. If you are a UAW union member, in order to have your vote counted your mail-in ballot must be received by November 28. (It is strongly encouraged that ballots be mailed by November 18.)

Just how resurgent the American labor movement will be largely depends on how engaged the rank-and-file becomes in the legacy unions that are its foundation.   ❖

Bob Hennelly is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist who covers labor and politics for Salon, Work-Bites, City & State, and InsiderNJ. He hosts the Stuck Nation Radio Labor Hour on Pacifica’s WBAI, 99.5 FM, and is the New York City Hall reporter for WBGO, 88.3 FM, NPR’s jazz station in Newark, New Jersey. 


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