UAW Elections "Wake-up" Call From Below, Power Play On High

Elections for delegates who will serve at both the United Auto Workers constitutional convention in Las Vegas this June and at next year's bargaining convention have indicated a growing restiveness in the membership.

The union heads toward its June convention facing serious problems: the impact of the Daimler-Benz (Mercedes) buy-out of Chrysler, the failed strategy at Caterpillar, continuing job cuts and speed up in the auto industry, and questions about the UAW's scheduled merger with the Steelworkers and Machinists.

Meanwhile the UAW leadership seems more out of touch than ever. Contract rejections at Caterpillar in February and at Case in May took the leaders by surprise. Though power plays by UAW President Steve Yokich are causing leadership fights, no change in direction or any plan to deal with the serious issues facing the union seems likely to come out of them.


In convention delegate voting, independents and activists from the insurgent New Directions Movement pulled off a number of upset victories.

In a spectacular comeback, former Flint Local 599 President and New Directions Co-chair Dave Yettaw took the top spot in the local's delegate elections, out-polling the current local president and the shop chair.

At Local 235, at GM spin-off American Axle in Detroit, long-time New Directions activist Wendy Thompson came in way ahead of all the other candidates for delegate with 948 votes; the second-place candidate got 497. Mark Farris, another New Directions activist, took top position in the delegates election for the Plastics Unit of Local 600 at the Ford Rouge complex outside Detroit.

Other candidates associated with New Directions won in St Louis and at the Mitsubishi plant in Illinois, and are expected to win in Delaware. Independents swept the delegate elections over the incumbent officers' slate in the Pontiac, Michigan GM Truck Plant.

Recent elections for local union office reflected a similar trend. Bill Parker, who ran as an independent but has long been associated with New Directions, took the presidency of Local 1700 at Chrysler's Sterling Heights assembly plant in suburban Detroit, winning with 55 percent in a field of five.

"With all these independents winning and saying what we've been saying since 1989, something is going on," said New Directions Co-chair Pat Patterson, who tracked the elections in Michigan. "People are realizing that the international is going nowhere. These elections are a wake-up call."


The callers have been getting a busy signal at UAW headquarters, where power politics are the order of the day. In the months leading up to the constitutional convention, Yokich moved to impose his own choices on three important regional Administration Caucuses that have traditionally chosen their own representatives on the International Executive Board.

The UAW's Administration Caucus is an organization of international and lower level officers—the "party" in the UAW's "one-party state." Regions 1, 1A, and 1C in auto-dense eastern Michigan are the union's largest. Since the UAW's 12 regional directors sit on the International Executive Board with votes apportioned by the number of members in their regions, control of these three directorships is important to controlling the union as a whole.

Succession in regional posts is usually a seamless process involving only a handful of staffers and officers. Replacements for regional directors, like those for international officers, are picked by the union's Administration Caucus and seldom face contested elections at the convention. Each regional caucus picks its candidate for director who is then elected by that region's convention delegates. The caucus tradition is that the assistant director moves up to the directorship when there's an opening.

In Region 1C, in the Flint area, Yokich slipped in one of his headquarters staffers, Cal Rapson, as assistant director when the old one retired over a year ago. The unusual move prepared the way for a smooth transition at this year's convention as the current director, Reuben Burkes, moves up to secretary-treasurer.

Things were not so smooth in Region 1A, which covers Detroit's west side and western suburbs. There Yokich nominated the reputedly independent-minded incumbent regional director, Bob King, to a vice presidential slot and pushed his own man, Gerald Bantom, for the director's seat instead of King's assistant director. After some resistance, King struck a deal for control of an expanded organizing department; Bantom will run unopposed.




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The biggest explosion in the Administration Caucus, however, came in Region 1, the union's largest, which covers 94,000 members in eastern Detroit and suburbs to the north and east. Here the fight was between Assistant Director Leon Matthews, who planned to replace the retiring incumbent, and Yokich's candidate, International Servicing Rep Nate Gooden.

At a meeting of the Region 1 Administration Caucus in February, Yokich showed up with Gooden and a small army of international reps and reportedly caused a brouhaha. The regional caucus had planned to decide between the two candidates, but now both are set to run at the convention.

After the February meeting 19 local officers signed a letter protesting Yokich's behavior. This was followed by an unusual flurry of leaflets and letters, mostly condemning Yokich and supporting Matthews.

According to some officials in the region, Yokich strong-armed local officers and convention delegates to back Gooden. Some say that Yokich even threatened to have work moved from locals' plants if their delegates supported Matthews. Gooden is expected to win.

While most people on both sides of the Matthews-Gooden contest agree there are no real policy differences, some of the leaflets that were flying around the region pointed to the union's failures under Yokich--the "surrender" at Caterpillar and ducking a fight against job loss in the Big Three were mentioned. Thus the dissatisfaction expressed by some members in delegate elections was reflected among local officials.

By tradition, the caucus selects one African American, so far always a man, and one woman, to date always white, among the six top UAW officers. Many Black staffers and local union officials, however, thought it was time to expand African American presence in the leadership.

Yokich selected an African American loyalist, Reuben Burkes, to be secretary-treasurer. At the same time, however, he picked Liz Bunn, a white administrative assistant, over Joan Patterson, an African American administrative assistant, to replace Carolyn Forrest as vice president.

This brought forth an angry response from a group called the Black Coalition Caucus, composed mainly of staffers. They accused Yokich of by-passing Patterson, whose "qualifications far exceed those of your candidate Liz Bunn." The leaflet also said the BCC "was tired of Black on Black politics within the UAW structure, manipulated by Yokich," a reference to the fact that candidates on both sides in Regions 1 and 1A are African American.

While the number of Blacks on the International Executive Board will actually increase no matter who wins in Region 1, all will most likely be Yokich loyalists.


With a significant number of New Directions, independent, and perhaps even disgruntled Administration Caucus delegates elected as convention delegates, there is at least a chance to raise crucial issues at this year's constitutional convention and next year's bargaining convention.

New Directions members will raise the question of direct elections of international officers in the union resulting from the UAW-IAM-USWA merger. While they are unlikely to win, they may get more support from independents than in the past. It is possible that even some Administration Caucus members may vote for such a resolution because of Yokich's recent behavior.

Dan McCarthy, president of Local 417 and an Administration Caucus member who is supporting Matthews, told the Detroit Metro Times that "there are a lot of people no longer willing to buy [the] logic" of a convention system for officer elections.

In addition, this will probably be the last UAW constitutional convention before the planned merger, now postponed to 2001. The uncertainty of this project and the secretive manner in which it is being carried out may well lend credibility to direct elections of officers.

Some convention delegates may also take the opportunity to express dissatisfaction with Yokich's passive reaction to the announced Daimler-Benz/Chrysler merger. That merger would make the German auto maker the majority owner of the new DaimlerChrysler company. When reporters asked about the effects on next year's bargaining, Yokich asked the press, "What would be different?"

Aside from the question of new ownership, differences would include: a global company as compared to a domestic one; a company with a major non-union assembly plant in the U.S. (in Vance, Alabama), rather than an all-union company; a management in the midst of an extreme downsizing drive at its German plants, rather than one more or less finished with its restructuring; and a cash-rich company in the global number three position with increased ability to resist a strike.

To put this another way, the almost instant transformation of Chrysler into a global operator is not unlike the metamorphosis of Caterpillar in the years prior to the UAW's abortive strikes.

Yokich will almost certainly get his way on most issues and candidates this year. But the once powerful UAW is growing less able to face new challenges as the union's already undemocratic one-party governance gives way to one-man rule.