Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Why I support One-Person-One-Vote in the upcoming UAW referendum

By Phillip Bannowsky

“AND ARE WE A FIGHTING UNION?” called UAW Vice President General Holiefield to hundreds of Chrysler’s Newark (Delaware) Assembly plant workers. The “General” no doubt expected a resounding martial response. None came. Maybe nobody in this 2007 special meeting of UAW Local 1183 workers heard him. I retired from Chrysler in 2001, but I was there.

“AND ARE WE A FIGHTING UNION?” Holifield repeated.

A few titters here and there—crickets, basically.

What, I wondered, did he expect, having come basically to shove a s**t sandwich—the two-tier wage structure—down our throats? New hires would get half-pay indefinitely.

Undeterred, Holiefield continued his pitch. The global economy was circling the drain. Detroit automakers were bleeding cash. This was only temporary. It would affect only a special class of workers, not those on our current jobs.

Having experience in local collective bargaining, I was inclined to be sympathetic. We were always squeezed between the rock of a good contract and the hard place of a shut-down. In the Q and A, I expressed my sympathy but argued that the two-tier violated UAW principles of solidarity and was contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23, paragraph 2: “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.”

Turns out that Holliefield did not exactly abide with that principle when he took the lion’s share of some 3.5 million dollars in bribes doled out to UAW officials by Fiat Chrysler Auto (FCA) and laundered through the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center (NTC). Since the capitulation, the UAW International Executive Board (IEB) was serving itself up ever move lavish vacations and gifts with union funds.

Now ten UAW officials, including two former presidents, have been sentenced for corruption, and the Union barely escaped a federal take-over by signing a consent decree (CD) agreeing to a membership-wide referendum on whether to continue electing our national leadership by convention delegates or do it by an all-member one-person-one-vote (1P1V) system. Essentially, claim advocates of 1P1V, “To stifle dissent, the AC has bribed, pressured and intimidated convention delegates and their locals to force them to vote for their candidates.”

I am not inclined to doubt it.

UAW members should be receiving their ballots on October 19. Still, some members have fallen off (or been dropped off) the union's LUIS information sharing application. Ballots must be received by November 29, 2021.

An independent monitor is in charge of this process, and members should contact them or their local union if they don't get a ballot, although some locals have been less than responsive.

All sides agree that a lack of transparency and accountability has led to this disaster. But there is a third factor that the sides do not agree on: the stranglehold on the UAW by the Administration Caucus, which was founded in the late forties by UAW pioneer Walter Reuther.

Walter and his brother Victor were both members of the Socialist Party and part of a broad coalition of progressives who built the UAW. It made sense that those organizers should make sure that new leaders should share the social vision of its founders.

I chanced to run into the son of an early UAW VP at a bar in Cape Cod, and he told me how it worked in the old days. “My dad had to ask a union leader if he could run for steward. Dad was a smart guy with a college degree, and he said OK, but most of his constituents were—let us say—not Jewish, he explained, and would be unlikely to vote for a Jew. On election day, the leader ran up to him, profusely apologizing that they had misspelled his name on the ballot. Now it looked not-Jewish, and he won.” Such shenanigans might seem understandable: Why should prejudice among new union members trump solidarity?

And indeed, the UAW system won us great pay, benefits, defined-benefit pensions, and a modicum of due process dealing with management.

So, when I began working for Chrysler in 1969, I was able to enjoy these benefits due to some hard bargaining and costly strikes.

At the same time, the working conditions were appalling. There were contaminants and crushing dangers everywhere. Some folks roasted between paint ovens while sloshing toxic solvents over car bodies and themselves. A man working in a pit near me was crushed to death by an overhanging fixture moving down the line. Some foremen were just plan nasty or incompetent buffoons—unnecessarily, because some were decent guys. Maybe two women in a shop of 300. Few foremen were Black, and all were men. The highest-ranking Black employee was a safety manager who sold safety shoes and was there to take a fall when disaster struck. And it was pure, numbing drudgery. We were treated like dumb children because it was dumbbell work.

Despite his social conscience, Reuther's Administration Caucus was built to forestall rivals. And his unionism tended toward what’s called business unionism. Focus on economics and let the corporations manage. Reuther referred to auto factories as “gold-plated sweatshops.”

Still, Reuther took progressive social positions. He supported the Civil Rights movement. He opposed nuclear energy. But he could not control what others would do with the Administration Caucus after he was killed in a plane crash in 1970.

When Leonard Woodcock took over as UAW president, he fired the anti-nuke staff and began hobnobbing with the corporate elite. He became a diplomat after Doug Frazer took over the UAW presidency.

Frazer confronted a great turning point in the labor movement when the capitalists went on the

offensive. Frazer had joined the Labor-Management Group, set up under the Nixon administration to seek cooperative solutions to labor-management problems. But then Frazer saw the light and quit in 1978, warning of “a one-sided class war." He declared, "I would rather sit with the rural poor, the desperate children of urban blight, the victims of racism, and working people seeking a better life than with those whose religion is the status quo, whose goal is profit and whose hearts are cold."

Our contracts had been improving dramatically up to this period. We were up to 12 days paid personal leave each year, in addition to our holidays, sick days, and supplemental unemployment benefits during model change and other layoffs. But then came a series of strategic attacks on the better union contracts. A fiscal crisis hit New York City in 1978, and a special board dominated by financial bigwigs like Felix Rohatyn “negotiated” concessions with city unions, all as part of a “rescue plan.” The next year, Chrysler was facing bankruptcy, and another special board concocted a rescue plan entailing dumping those personal days and exacting a loan from union members in the form of delayed pay. Rohatyn had advised on this rescue, as well. The “one-sided class war” that Dough Frazer feared was being won by the one side fighting it. In 1979 union membership was at its peak. It has plummeted ever since.

I wrote a poem about this disaster called “The Crisis at Chrysler, 1979”:


An economic system’s in disarray and fast decline,

And Chrysler Corporation has the sickest bottom line

But that doesn’t say

That Chrysler can’t pay

                                    When you calculate the kickback:


While the bankers, executives, lawyers and ad agents

Get interest and rents, bribes, and dividend payments,

It’s crack that whip

And here’s your pink slip

                                    For Joe and Sally Sixpack.


Since that fateful year, UAW membership has declined from 1.5 million to 400 thousand.

I entered union politics during the 70’s when an SDS comrade and I joined up with some African American brothers to challenge the sitting local president. He was part of the Green Slate caucus that dominated our local and was a pipeline to the Administration Caucus.

The Green slate had much to admire. They were very diverse, they were mostly very capable, and their rough and tumble tactics can be partially excused by the rough and tumble realities of working-class life and confronting the boss. Management is always trying to take away everything you’ve won, and you get hard representing your constituents, and you will kick hard at anyone who tries to challenge you politically.

Still, there were few Blacks in skilled trades, safety was pathetic, and we were a bunch of radicals who wanted to bring back that socialist vision largely abandoned since Reuther.

I decided to run for shop steward and won two votes.

By 1980 we had a new caucus, The Progressive Movement. For several years we passed out flyers on safety, women's rights, labor history, affirmative action in skilled trades, internationalism, and socialism. In 1982, I won an upset election for Committeeperson.

At that time, the UAW might have been autocratic but, by-and-large, it was not corrupt. "Spend it, don't steal it," was what one international rep told me, regarding the perks of office. What corruption I saw was a petty crook here or there: a former committeeman who was a loan shark, another officer who was said to be a company plant. Some skimming of interest from a union fund we were told was not interest-bearing. Cheating on skilled trades exams. 300-dollar monthly stipends for committeepersons—until I was elected, that is. And management played favorites with their patsies, resolving a train of grievances for offering the wrong guy overtime with money damages, while telling the rest of us, “we’ll make it up next time.”

Oddly, the international union broke up the caucuses in the locals around 1984, calling joint slates “undemocratic.”

    I am told that delegates to the national convention are threatened and shouted down if they don’t support the anointed AC candidates or are promised jobs with the International for going along. I am not inclined to doubt it. The only time anyone outside the AC was elected to the IEB was when Jerry Tucker was elected as Director Region 5 in 1986. This, however, was only after the National Labor Relations Board threw out the first election because the AC had cheated.

   But would AC officials sell us out with a s**t sandwich for a bribe? I would have doubted it then, but now we know.
        The problem is we can’t leave it to Administration Caucus to clean up their act. As reported in a 2019 Detroit News article, two former UAW communications directors, Rev. Peter Laarman and Frank Joyce, “broke what they called an ‘institutional code of silence’ to give a scathing rebuke of the UAW leadership . . . [and] called for the resignations of the UAW's entire international executive board. . . . All of them. Senior staff assisting current officers and board members are themselves 'see no evil, hear no evil,' enablers. They too should resign."

This is not to say every local or regional official is culpable. I am forever grateful for my local president who supported my leadership of a forty-organization coalition that worked to restore voting rights to former felons in Delaware. However, even Laarman and Joyce admit that, like frogs in a gradually warming pot of corruption, they were slow to hop out.

In the debate held by the UAW Monitor on October 7 of this year, Administrative Caucus arguments were weak. They complained about all the old people speaking and claimed most UAW members don't even know who the UAW President is, much less how the union should be run. Their strongest arguments relied on the UAW’s tremendous record before the decline. See for yourself at UAW Monitorship Webinar.

By the way, the idea put forward by Administration Caucus defenders that outside money (like Fiat Chryser’s!) could influence a 1P1V election is dead on arrival. The Consent Agreement holds that if 1P1V is chosen by the rank and file in the referendum, the manner in which the 1P1V election will be carried out will be negotiated between the Monitor and the present UAW IEB. Supporters of 1P1V like Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) have called on the monitor to impose spending limits and reporting requirements. If the current IEB is worried about outside money, they can support those limits and requirements, too.

The UAW is great because we had great founding principles of solidarity, we had great leaders, and we had a rank and file brave and bold enough to seize the plants until the Big Three accepted the union. It will take an enormous effort to rebuild the UAW. Only the rank and file can do it. We have an opportunity and a duty to recharge the labor movement and to do that, we need to step up and select a new leadership ourselves.


In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,

Greater than the might of armies, multiplied a thousand-fold.

We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old

For the union makes us strong.

Solidarity forever!

—Ralph Chapman, “Solidarity Forever,” UAW Anthem