History was made Wednesday at the UAW’s 38th constitutional convention.
For the first time, delegates from union locals around the country walked to microphones and nominated candidates for the union’s top offices, including president, secretary-treasurer and vice president. They didn’t actually pick the leaders. That will happen later this year when members get to cast ballots, a result of the changes brought about by the consent decree with the government resulting from the corruption scandal.
It was a mix of speeches touting the qualities of the nominees, expressions of union pride and solidarity and concerns about the need for leadership change because of the scandal.
Nominations for dozens of candidates were put forward, and the nominees in attendance stood to accept the honor. Wednesday marked the third day of the convention at Detroit’s Huntington Place, formerly Cobo Hall.
A number of challengers had already announced their intention to run before the convention, saying they had support lined up.
The presidential hopefuls want to unseat Ray Curry, who was picked by the International Executive Board in 2021 to replace the now-retired Rory Gamble. The IEB represents the top leadership of the union.
Curry, who was nominated Wednesday, got his start with the UAW in 1992, when he was hired as a truck assembler at Freightliner Trucks in Mount Holly, North Carolina, according to the union. He previously served as Region 8 director and as secretary-treasurer, among other positions. Curry has been on hand for convention duties this week, and was expected to deliver a speech on Thursday, the final day of the convention.
Although the candidates that want to challenge Curry have different platforms, many of the issues they highlight are the same ones that rank-and-file members mention regularly as top concerns — restoring regular cost-of-living increases, ending the tiered wage system and getting temporary part-time or supplemental workers into full-time status much more quickly. The Free Press spoke to three of the presidential challengers.
'A voice for the membership'
Shawn Fain, 53, of Shelby Township, is part of a slate of candidates supported by Unite All Workers For Democracy, one of the major advocates for the “one member, one vote,” direct elections push. The group’s UAW Members United Slate also includes Margaret Mock, a member of UAW Local 140 at Stellantis' Warren Truck Assembly, who is running for International secretary-treasurer, and LaShawn English, president of UAW Local 1264, which represents workers at Stellantis’ Sterling Stamping Plant. She is running for UAW Region 1 director.
Fain is an administrative assistant to the vice president over the union’s Stellantis Department who is currently tasked with overseeing the union’s side of the transition of the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center in Warren. The center hosted joint training between the company and the union, but the training center entity is one of the casualties of the scandal, although it's possible worker training may ultimately continue there.
Fain also has served five terms as a skilled trades committeeperson and shop chair at Local 1166 at what's now the Stellantis Kokomo Casting Plant in Kokomo, Indiana, and 10 years as an international representative, according to Unite All Workers for Democracy.
“I’ve always been a voice for the membership. I’ve always stood for the right things. That’s brought me some grief over the years,” Fain said.
Fain blamed UAW leaders for not being responsive to the members and for being too complacent to meet the challenges ahead.
“This union was born out of a Depression. It didn’t grow because we were complacent and we worked with the companies. It grew because they fought for the members, and they fought for jobs and security, and we set the standard, and now, some of our sectors are negotiating for parity with nonunion plants. We used to set the standard, and now we’re trying to bargain up to a nonunion standard. That’s just crazy, and it’s got to change,” Fain said.
Despite a lengthy period of economic growth in the United States, Fain noted concerns about job losses at various plants, autoworker families being forced to move because products are being shifted to different areas, and rising inflation. He said it takes too long to get the full benefits of union membership.
“(Workers are) living paycheck to paycheck. We have to change that dynamic,” Fain said.
'Hand the power back' to members
Brian Keller, 53, of Mount Clemens, is also running for president.
Keller has been a longtime union activist who was once a plaintiff in a now-dismissed lawsuit that accused Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and the UAW of colluding to pervert the contract bargaining process.
Keller, who works at Stellantis’ Quality Engineering Center in Auburn Hills, said he has been talking about the corruption in the union even before it became a news story.
The most important thing, Keller said, is to “hand the power back over to the membership.”
For Keller, that will help address other issues, like the UAW’s struggles getting workers to organize at plants not run by the Detroit Three.
“You’ve got to fix what’s wrong within the union. The problem’s the leadership. if we can get the proper leadership at Solidarity House ... then I think these other shops will be banging on our door,” Keller said, referencing the UAW’s headquarters in Detroit, which is yet to reopen for business after extensive damage from a fire in 2019.
General Motors, Ford and Stellantis also need to remember who their customers are, according to Keller.
The CEOs make so much more than the average worker, the companies are getting big tax abatements and still “shipping jobs out of the country for cheaper labor” while U.S. workers are being told they have to be “competitive,” according to Keller.
“This ain’t about being greedy,” Keller said of union workers. “We’ve continued to take cuts even when these companies have done well in recent years.”
Union too 'corporation-friendly'
Will Lehman, 34, is also hoping to replace Curry.
Lehman has worked for Mack Trucks in Macungie, Pennsylvania, for five years. Although he’s a UAW member, Lehman said he’s not involved at the local union level because he doesn’t see it as a pathway for change.
Lehman said the biggest problem with the UAW is what it has become.
“It’s developed into a big business that’s corporation-friendly, and it’s been that way since the ‘80s,” Lehman said. “What it needs to be is a workers organization run by, composed of and controlled by workers, and not someone ... who sits thousands of miles away and doesn’t let workers go on strike,” Lehman said, describing strikes as an essential tool to get companies to negotiate fairly with workers.
Lehman, who grew up in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, wants to see significant change for the organization and thinks workers should take a wider view of labor struggles that goes beyond national borders. He said the strike is a critical element for worker power to get companies to negotiate, and he said the UAW has worked to control and limit strikes.
Boosting the strike fund, which stood at $826 million as of March, is a key point for Lehman. He said Solidarity House should be sold and the proceeds put toward the fund.
For those who question Lehman’s level of experience, he has a message.
“It sounds good. Experience always sounds good, but when it’s only bad experience, it’s only a sellout of workers, that’s the only experience they’re standing on,” Lehman said, noting that former presidents Dennis Williams and Gary Jones, both convicted in the corruption scandal, have experience.
Three others were also nominated for president: Mark Gibson of UAW Local 163 and two retirees, Jim Coakley and John Guinan, but currently retirees aren't eligible under the rules.
And there are challenger hopefuls for other positions, too.
Mock, 57, of Southfield, wants to be the next secretary-treasurer. Frank Stuglin is the union's current secretary-treasurer, and he was nominated for the post on Wednesday, too.
Mock's a team leader at the Warren Truck paint shop who also has worked at Marysville Axle and been involved in many UAW committees. She cited the corruption scandal as a prime reason for her decision to run.
"The embezzlement of union funds, receiving gifts from the company, that’s one of the reasons I'm running for that position," said Mock. "We need a candidate who has ... (the) courage to hold my own union officials accountable, someone who will make financial information transparent.“
Mock said she believes people outside the UAW see the scandal as driven by the union's leaders.
"Overall, the rank and file, we’re good people, we don’t have access to do anything like that," she said, noting that she's "praying" those outside the union see that.
For English, 55, of Grand Blanc, who has been president of her local for three terms, the way supplemental workers are treated is a particular irritant that she mentioned as she talked about her quest to become a regional director.
Many supplemental workers, who were previously called temporary part-time workers, are forced to work more than 70 hours a week at the same time she has workers on layoff.
English, who already has to stand for election as a local union president, pointed to a lack of "outrage" and said there's no pushback from the UAW leadership that Stellantis has been announcing indefinite layoffs for workers at various plants, such as hers.
“They've all got to go because they’re not willing to fight for the membership any more," said English.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: UAW delegates put forward nominations for top leaders at convention