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NYTimes
New York Times
25 Mar 2023


NextImg:President Is Ousted in United Auto Workers Election
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Credit...Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
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Credit...Sarah Rice for The New York Times

An insurgent candidate has won the presidency of the United Auto Workers union, potentially setting the organization on a more confrontational path as it heads into contract talks this year with the three Detroit automakers.

Shawn Fain, a 54-year-old electrician who has been a member of the union for almost three decades, defeated the incumbent, Ray Curry, after a monthslong election battle in which Mr. Fain’s allies won seats across the union’s executive board.

Mr. Fain claimed victory on Saturday, and Mr. Curry conceded, as a court-appointed election monitor neared the end of the vote count.

Mr. Curry, a 57-year-old former assembly line worker with a master’s degree in business administration, was appointed president in 2021 after a broad federal investigation into a series of corruption scandals. He had carried out a number of reforms but ultimately was seen by many members as not enough of a break with previous presidents and executives linked to wrongdoing.

With the count nearly complete, Mr. Fain had 69,459 votes, or 50.2 percent, and Mr. Curry had 68,976, according to an unofficial tally. The count had gone on for weeks, prolonged by the inspection of challenged ballots.

Mr. Curry said Mr. Fain would be sworn in on Sunday and would preside over a convention to hammer out plans for the contract talks.

The vote was a runoff after a contest in November in which Mr. Curry collected about 600 more votes than Mr. Fain but neither man reached the 50 percent threshold to be declared the winner.

“The winds of change run strongly through this election,” Harley Shaiken, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, who has followed the U.A.W. for more than three decades. “It defines the direction of the U.A.W. going forward.”

Mr. Fain said he intended to be more confrontational in contract negotiations, a position that appealed to members after years of concessions on wages and benefits and following corruption scandals that ended with two former presidents serving time in prison.

“This is the end of company unionism, where the companies and the union work together in a friendly way, because it hasn’t been good for our members,” he said in an interview as the vote count neared completion. “These companies have enjoyed record profits for a decade, and our workers are still regressing and struggling to get by.”

Insurgents aligned with him won a majority of offices on the union’s international executive board — an outcome widely seen as reflecting the members’ desire for significant change at the top of the union.

But Mr. Fain and the new administration have little experience in running the union’s operations.

It was the first election open to all members of the union, and had been mandated by a court-appointed monitor who has been overseeing the union’s efforts to wipe out corruption. Previously, the union’s presidents and other senior officials were chosen by delegates to a convention, in which the result was often determined by favors and favoritism and did not always reflect the sentiments of rank-and-file workers.

“I knew our members were fed up,” Mr. Fain said. “It was just a matter of whether they were willing to vote for change, because they’ve never been able to do that before.”

The apparent shake-up comes as the U.A.W. is about to start talks with General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis on four-year labor contracts. The talks come as the automakers are again earning significant profits. G.M. reported profits of $9.9 billion for 2022. Ford reported a loss, but its North American operation remains its main profit generator. Stellantis, which was formed by a merger of Fiat Chrysler and France’s PSA in 2021, made 17 billion euros, with a large share coming from North America.

It also occurs as the automakers are making the transition from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric ones, which have fewer moving parts and require less labor.

“The union is in the midst of a most important transition since the introduction of the assembly line with the move toward electric vehicles, and that could result in the loss of a lot of automotive jobs,” Professor Shaiken said. “How the new leadership navigates that will impact the U.A.W. and the labor movement.”

For decades after its founding in 1935, the U.A.W. had the power to influence presidential elections and consistently won middle-class wages and benefits that set the standard for workers in many industries across the country. At its peak, in 1979, it had 1.5 million members.

But the U.A.W.’s membership and influence steadily declined as the Detroit automakers faced increasing competition from Toyota and other foreign automakers that were building nonunion plants across the South. As those rivals gained a greater foothold, the American companies reduced their payrolls and shut factories.

The 2009 bankruptcy filings by G.M. and Chrysler — which is now part of Stellantis — forced the union into major concessions, including a wage system that left newcomers earning substantially less than veteran workers.

While diminished, the U.A.W. still has influence. “The union can still turn out voters in critical states like Michigan and Ohio and other states that can determine a presidential election,” Professor Shaiken said.

The U.A.W. now has about 400,000 active members, including college teaching assistants and casino workers as well as auto manufacturing workers. Both active members and the union’s 600,000 retirees were eligible to vote in the elections.

For the last several years the U.A.W. has been reeling from a federal corruption investigation that eventually found a number of schemes in which senior officials embezzled millions of dollars from union coffers. They spent some of the money on expensive cigars, wines, liquor, golf clubs, apparel and luxury travel.

In total, federal investigators found that $1.5 million had been siphoned from membership dues, and $3.5 million from union training centers. More than a dozen U.A.W. officials pleaded guilty, and two former presidents, Gary Jones and Dennis Williams, were sentenced to prison. Each was released after serving nine months.

As part of a consent decree settling the investigation, the U.S. District Court in Detroit appointed an outside monitor to oversee the implementation of democratic and transparency reforms. One of the mandated reforms was a one-person-one-vote election.