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Democracy Comes to the United Auto Workers

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ca. 1950 General Motors contract settlement- first partially paid hospitalization and medical program at union shop. J.W. Livingston, T.A. Johnstone, Irving Bluestone, Guy Nunn, Walter Reuther, Harry Anderson (GM), and Lou Seaton (GM).

Many of our unions are not actually democratic, or at least don’t have a history of democracy. For decades, everyday members of the United Mine Workers or United Steel Workers had zero say over the running of the union, including accepting contracts or voting to go on strike. They did what leadership said. There was a big backlash against this in the 1970s, but in terms of real direct democracy, many of the industrial unions did not embrace that. I actually don’t think that more democracy in unions necessarily leads to progressive goals–it’s the classic example of everyone being a pundit who thinks that if “the people” are allowed to vote, their policy positions will be the exact same ones as mine. But more democracy in unions is certainly better than less.

Meanwhile, the United Auto Workers is recovering from a serious scandal where union officers were living the high life off member dues and several of them are currently or were until just recently in prison for it. So as the UAW seeks new leadership, democracy is again becoming relevant in the union.

The first United Auto Workers election open to all members appears to have produced a wave of opposition to the established leadership, signaling the prospect of sweeping changes for a union tarnished by a series of corruption scandals.

As the count neared completion on Friday, the current president, Ray Curry, was in a close contest with an insurgent challenger, Shawn Fain, with each getting slightly under 40 percent. The remaining votes were scattered among three dark-horse candidates.

If those results are confirmed by a court-appointed monitor overseeing the count, Mr. Fain and Mr. Curry will head for a runoff election in January.“If these results hold, it can only be seen as shocking,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, who has followed the U.A.W. for more than three decades. “It’s a major upset for the incumbent administration. The union is entering a new and profoundly different era.”

In an interview as the results were tallied, Mr. Fain said he believed the vote reflected a desire for broad change, citing not only the corruption scandals but also an inability to win broad wage and benefits improvements over the last decade as the three Detroit automakers rang up significant profits.

“I think it definitely shows the pulse of the membership and the pure fact that they’re fed up,” said Mr. Fain, an electrician who has been a member of the union for almost three decades. “I think the members want to get this union back in line and see the election as their shot.”

This has been needed for a long time. Whether upstart leadership is more effective than established leadership is a whole other question, but not corrupt leadership is definitely key to getting members to care about their union. So it’s a good thing either way.

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