Background on UAW Structure and Functioning, AKA “Why Is Our Union So Messed Up?”

22 Feb

Barry   Eidlin, Department   of   Sociology, University   of   California,   Berkeley

[Note:   the   following   was   written   in   response   to   questions   I   received   from   a   new   union    activist   with   extensive   previous   experience   in   campus   organizing]

The   historical   background   of   the   leadership   culture   of   the   UAW. Why   does   it   seem    that   their   biggest   priority   is   maintaining   their   own   power,   even   if   it   contradicts   with    the   needs/rights   of   the   rank-­and-file?   How   is   this   non- democratic   culture   maintained    through   the   meeting   structure,   controlling   internal   communications,   and   bringing   in    new   recruits?

While   some   aspects   of   the   structure   and   functioning   of   the   UAW   bureaucracy   are    common   to   union   leaderships   more   broadly,   other   aspects   are   very   particular   to   the    UAW’s   history.   The   key   to   understanding   the   UAW   bureaucracy   is   understanding    the   role   of   the   Administration   Caucus   (AC).   Essentially,   the   AC   functions   as   the   one    party   in   the   UAW’s   one-party   state.   Since   1947,   virtually   all   top   UAW   officials   and    most   local   union   officers   have   been   members   of   the   AC.   All   major   decisions    regarding   union   leadership   and   policy   are   first   vetted   by   the   AC   before   being    presented   to   the   membership   at   conventions.   The   AC   controls   all   flows   of    information   inside   the   union,   and   acts   to   defend   the   union   leadership’s   interests   at    all   costs.

It   wasn’t   always   this   way.   Prior   to   1947,   the   UAW   was   actually   a   vibrant,   rough-and-tumble,   democratic   organization.   Members   exercised   power   on   the   shop   floor,    engaged   in   militant   actions   like   the   1937   Flint   sit-down   strikes   (factory    occupations),   and   built   the   union   from   virtually   nothing   into   a   powerful   force   within    a   few   short   years.   Politically,   there   was   room   for   many   different   groups   to   advance    their   program   for   the   union,   including   Communists,   Socialists,   and   other    independent   radicals.   However,   through   skillful   political   maneuvering,   Walter    Reuther,   a   former   socialist   who   rose   through   the   ranks   to   become   the   union’s   GM    Director,   then   President,   was   able   to   consolidate   control   over   the   union.   He    ultimately   purged   or   otherwise   neutralized   all   internal   political   opposition,    cementing   the   Administration   Caucus’   dominant   position   within   the   union.   UCSB    labor   historian   Nelson   Lichtenstein   lays   out   this   story   in   intricate   detail   in   his    award-winning   book   The   Most   Dangerous   Man   in   Detroit:   Walter   Reuther   and   the    Fate   of   American   Labor.

Why   does   the   AC   act   to   defend   the   leadership’s   interests   at   all   costs?

It   starts   with   a    sincere   belief   that   they,   the   leadership,   are   the   guardians   of   the   union,   and   the   not-unreasonable   belief   that   the   union   is   under   constant   threat   of   attack   from   all    quarters.   However,   the   problem   arises   from   the   fact   that   the   AC/leadership   comes    1   to   view   itself   as   “the   union.”   Given   this   conflation   of   the   leadership   with   the   union   as    a   whole,   combined   with   the   aforementioned   fear   of   attack,   it   is   not   too   hard   to   see    how   any   proposal   or   action   that   doesn’t   emanate   from   the   leadership   is   viewed   as    an   attack   on   the   leadership,   and   thus   by   extension   an   attack   on   the   union.   As   such,    rank   and   file   members   who   might   have   different   ideas   from   the   leadership   as   to    how   the   union   should   be   run   or   what   the   union   should   do   are   seen   either   as    misguided   members   who   must   be   properly   “educated”   about   the   issues,   or,   if   the    members   persist   in   making   their   demands,   as   a   divisive   “faction”   that   poses   a   mortal    threat   to   the   future   of   the   union,   and   must   be   crushed   at   all   cost.

Of   course,   the   best-case   scenario   for   the   leadership   is   one   in   which   they   are   left    alone   to   play   their   role   as   guardians   of   the   union.   This   leads   to   tight   controls   over    the   flow   of   information   and   the   establishment   of   strict,   precisely   delimited   channels    for   involving   new   members.   The   goal   is   to   reproduce   the   existing   leadership   as    much   as   possible   while   minimizing   the   possibility   for   independent   initiatives   that    might   lead   the   union   astray   (since   they   don’t   emanate   from   the   leadership,   which    alone   has   the   true   interests   of   the   union   at   heart).   In   terms   of   information,   this   is    why   we   see   the   reluctance   to   make   basic   information   about   the   union   available   in    writing,   whether   that   be   executive   board   minutes,   financial   reports,   etc.   It   also   is    why   the   union   leadership   is   very   reluctant   to   pursue   any   kind   of   communications    strategy   beyond   what   they   call   “one- to-one   organizing,”   where   a   trusted   key   leader,    usually   a   paid   staffer,   interacts   one- ‐on- ‐one   with   a   specific   member.   To   the   extent    that   they   disseminate   information,   they   want   it   to   be   in   one   direction:   from   them   to    the   membership,   preferably   in   a   carefully   scripted   form.   Thus   the   almost   exclusive    preference   for   phone   banking   and   department   walks   over   leafleting,   e-mail    campaigns,   or   even   department-level   meetings   not   organized   by   the   top   leadership.    We   have   started   to   see   the   local   leadership   loosen   up   with   regard   to   e-mail   and    Internet   communications,   but   this   has   largely   been   in   response   to   the   effective   use    of   such   communications   strategies   by   reform   forces   in   our   union.

In   terms   of   leadership   recruitment,   the   desire   to   protect   the   leadership   (i.e.   the    union)   at   all   costs   influences   both   the   type   of   people   the   leadership   seeks   to   bring    into   the   union,   as   well   as   the   way   in   which   they   go   about   this   leadership   recruitment    and   development.   Again,   the   goal   here   is   leadership/organizational   stability   and    continuity.   As   such,   the   existing   leadership   wants   to   recruit   people   who   are   “team    players,”   and   will   accept   the   existing   way   of   doing   things   without   asking   too   many    questions.   The   result   is   that   they   generally   target   for   leadership   recruitment   people    who   are   well-meaning,   pro-union   liberals,   but   with   little   prior   activist   or   union    experience.   This   provides   them   with   a   “blank   slate”   which   they   can   then   mould   in    their   own   image   through   careful,   close,   one-on-one   mentoring.   It   also   means   that    they   actively   seek   to   exclude   from   involvement   people   with   previous   activist    experience,   at   least   those   who   think   that   they   can   use   that   previous   activist    experience   to   shape   how   the   union   should   be   run.

The   contrast   between   the   UAW’s   progressive   side   projects   (in   racial   justice,    immigrant   rights,   solidarity   with   other   workers)   and   inactivity   on   our   own   campus. Superficially   from   the   e- mails   and   website,   it   seems   like   the   UAW   supports    progressive   causes,   but   then   again,   hardly   any   of   the   progressive   activists   at   UCLA    have   been   involved   in   our   local.   Why   doesn’t   the   UAW   do   more   to   organize   its   own    members   on   our   own   campus   to   fight   for   their   own   rights?   People   at   UCLA   have   been    fed   the   same   argument   over   and   over   by   UAW leadership that   our   campus   is   “just   too   difficult   to    organize”   but   then   again   we   saw   how   they   somehow   turned   out   an   unprecedented    number   of   people   to   vote   yes   for   the   contract   vote.   Why   is   this?

Historically,   the   UAW   has   a   track   record   of   being   on   the   right   side   of   social   justice    issues   outside   the   labor   movement.   Perhaps   the   best   example   of   this   was   the   union’s    consistent   support   for   the   civil   rights   movement   in   the   1960s.   In   the   1980s   the    union   was   also   a   strong   voice   in   the   struggle   against   South   African   apartheid.    However,   this   commitment   to   social   justice   and   democracy   has   never   extended   to    the   union   itself.   To   go   back   to   the   example   of   the   civil   rights   movement   of   the   1960s,    Reuther   and   the   AC   were   quite   willing   to   bankroll   community   organizers   conducting    voter   registration   drives   down   in   Alabama.   But   later   on   in   the   1960s,   when   African-American   UAW   members   started   organizing   themselves   on   the   shop   floor   in   Detroit    as   members   of   DRUM   (the   Dodge   Revolutionary   Union   Movement),   asking   why   they    were   still   the   “last   hired,   first   fired,”   and   why   they   still   got   stuck   with   the   hardest,    dirtiest   jobs,   the   attitude   of   the   UAW   leadership   was   much   less   sympathetic.   In    response   to   wildcat   strikes   by   African-American   UAW   members   protesting    appalling   shop   floor   conditions,   the   UAW   International   sent   armies   of   paid   staff   to    the   picket   lines,   baseball   bats   in   hand,   to   break   the   strikes   and   force   the   UAW    members   back   to   work.   This   story   is   told   in   the   book   Detroit:   I   Do   Mind   Dying:   A    Study   in   Urban   Revolution, by   Dan   Georgakas   and   Marvin   Surkin.

While   the   level   of   overt   physical   violence   may   have   subsided   in   recent   years,   the    same   schizophrenic   attitude   towards   movements   for   democracy   and   social   justice    within   and   outside   the   union   remains.   Our   union   leadership   will   gladly   pass    resolutions   in   favor   of   exploited   carwash   workers   and   farmworkers,   as   we   saw   at    the   recent   Joint   Council   meeting.   What   they   will   not   do   is   mount   any   sort   of    campaign   that   might   involve   mobilizing   the   union   membership   on   a   large   scale.    Based   on   the   material   we   covered   in   answer   to   the   previous   question,   the   reason   for    this   should   be   clear:   any   mass   membership   mobilization   that   goes   beyond   simply    rounding   up   bodies   to   show   up   at   rallies   runs   the   risk   of   giving   rank   and   file    members   the   idea   that   they   might   have   a   say   in   how   their   union   is   run.   This   in   turn    might   lead   to   members   organizing   independently   of   the   leadership,   thus   placing   the    union   in   danger.   Since   it   poses   such   a   threat   to   organizational   stability   and    continuity,   member   mobilization   is   generally   kept   to   a   minimum.

This   is   not   to   say   that   members   have   no   role   in   the   union—they   do.   However,   that    role   is   very   narrowly   defined:   they   are   to   be   foot   soldiers   for   the   union,   taking    orders   from   the   top   leadership   to   enact   the   plans   that   the   leadership   has   already    laid   out.   This   type   of   “mobilization”   involves   very   low   levels   of   information   sharing    and   low   levels   of   required   commitment.   The   classic   example   of   this   is   the   strategy    the   leadership   pursued   for   turning   out   the   “yes”   vote   in   the   recent   contract ratification   vote:   simply   round   up   voters   by   placing   union   staffers   at   strategic    campus   “chokepoints,”   give   them   a   quick   spiel   about   why   they   should   vote   “yes,”    and   direct   them   to   the   polling   location.   In   this   scenario,   there   is   no   need   or   desire    for   any   further   follow-up;   the   members   have   performed   their   assigned   task   of    ratifying   the   leadership’s   decisions,   and   can   then   go   back   to   being   disengaged,    uninformed   members.

Real   organizing   is   hard,   often   plodding   work,   sustained   over   a   long   period   of   time.    But   that   doesn’t   mean   that   it   is   impossible,   either   at   UCLA   or   at   any   other   UC    campus   for   that   matter.   It’s   simply   a   matter   of   making   that   type   of   grassroots    organizing   a   strategic   priority.   That’s   the   model   that   we   have   seen   emerge   at   the    Berkeley   campus   after   years   of   inactivity,   and   there   is   no   reason   to   believe   that   it    can’t   develop   on   other   campuses   as   well.

In   running   for   head   steward   and   other   positions,   how   and   what   chances   do   we    have   to   change   this   culture? What   is   the   potential   of   reforming   and   democratizing    our   union   from   within?

With   the   emergence   of   Academic   Workers   for   a   Democratic   Union   (AWDU)   over   the    past   few   months,   we   have   a   very   real   and   concrete   opportunity   to   change   the    culture   of   secrecy   and   distrust   that   currently   pervades   our   local.   We   can   do   this   not    only   by   getting   different   leaders   elected—although   that   certainly   won’t   hurt—but    by   showing   how   a   different   way   of   doing   things   might   actually   work   in   practice.    AWDU   is   made   up   of   rank   and   file   members   and   officials   who   actually   believe   that    the   key   to   a   stronger   union   is   an   informed,   activist,   and   involved   membership.   We    have   been   putting   that   belief   into   action   in   our   campaigns   against   the   contract    ratification   and   to   elect   new   leadership,   as   well   as   in   our   day-to-day   union   work   on    campuses   where   reform   activists   are   currently   in   control.   As   our   movement   grows,    we   will   continue   to   put   that   belief   into   action.

In   terms   of   the   current   vacancy   election,   with   the   26   candidates   we   are   fielding,   we    have   the   chance   to   win   as   many   as   38   seats   on   the   union’s   Joint   Council,   which    would   give   us   a   majority   position.   This   in   turn   would   give   reformers   a   strong   voice    in   setting   the   overall   direction   for   our   union.   The   next   step   will   be   the   leadership    elections   in   May,   when   the   entire   Joint   Council   and   Executive   Board   will   be   up   for    election.

Of   course,   if   we   win,   we   can   expect   to   take   a   lot   of   heat   from   the   UAW   International.    It   will   take   a   lot   of   member   education   and   mobilization   to   counter   this   attack.    However,   by   mobilizing   our   members   and   creating   organic   connections   with   other    unions   and   social   justice   organizations,   we   can   build   the   strong   organization   we    need   both   to   fend   off   potential   problems   from   our   union   leadership,   as   well   as   to    participate   in   the   movement   to   fight   against   the   cuts   and   for   a   more   just,   more    democratic   University.

By   trying   to   change   our   union,   aren’t   we   in   danger   of   playing   into   the   right- wing    critique   that   unions   are   inherently   corrupt   and   an   outdated   form   of   collective    organization?

Absolutely   not.   To   the   extent   that   anything   about   unions   is   outdated,   it   is   the   idea    common   within   the   UAW   leadership   that   the   way   forward   is   to   leave   everything   up    to   them.   By   fighting   for   a   more   open,   democratic,   member-run   union,   we   are   playing    a   key   role   in   injecting   new   ideas   and   a   new   vibrancy   into   the   labor   movement.   If   we    look   at   examples   from   U.S.   labor   history   as   well   as   examples   from   abroad,   we   see    that   unions   are   strongest   when   they   mobilize   with   broader   forces   as   a   movement    for   social   justice.   As   I   write   this,   we   can   see   how   powerful   that   kind   of   organizing    can   be   by   looking   at   the   mobilizations   in   the   streets   of   Tunis   and   Cairo,   which   have    been   bolstered   by   strong   support   from   trade   union   activists.

In   sum,   the   fight   for   a   more   democratic   union   is   the   fight   for   a   stronger   union   that    can   be   a   better   ally   in   the   broader   struggle   for   social   justice.


2 Responses to “Background on UAW Structure and Functioning, AKA “Why Is Our Union So Messed Up?””

  1. Enough February 27, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    What’s with the “guilt by association”? Lemme see: the reason “hardly any of the progressive activists at UCLA have been involved in our local” in 2010-2011 is because of what other UAW members did 50-60 years ago clear across the country? And the Local leadership (who weren’t even born at the time) are somehow responsible for the actions of the AC in the 50s and 60s?

    What McCarthyite tactic is next from AWDU? Red-baiting people of color in the Local? Oh, wait, you already did that:

    If you ask me, the answer to “why our union is so messed up” is: self-important and privileged “militants” with a dissidence fetish who are more interested in tearing down our union (and those active in it) than in fighting the administration, and who advocate rejecting dramatic improvements in child care subsidies because it doesn’t benefit them.

    • awduucla March 26, 2011 at 5:48 pm #

      It is not “guilt by association” that is being argued. What is being argued is that this sort of decision-making “style”–to put it kindly–that is pervasive in UAW has a legacy not only within local 2865, which is clear to any plain observer, but also within the international. It amounts to nothing more than contextualizing the present circumstances of the local union in historical and international union context.

      This is quite far removed from a “McCarthyite tactic” or “red-baiting people of color.” If anything, democratizing the union does exactly the opposite: it opens the union up to the possibility that people of different creeds and “colors” can participate in decision-making, in deciding on the objectives, means, and commitments of the union. As it is now, decision-making is centralized and limited to an inner circle of entrenched bureaucrats. As a result, UAW local projects have been stale and ineffective.

      But thanks for your comments. 🙂

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