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


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.

Walter Reuther in 1966

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.


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