Mixed Feelings Among UAW Union Democracy Activists about Fain’s Victory

Shawn Fain and newly elected UAW leadership after being sworn in this Sunday in Detroit (UAW)

Yesterday, Shawn Fain declared victory in his bid to be United Auto Workers President after an unofficial vote tally showed him winning the presidential election in the 1.1 million-member union by a margin of just 483 votes.

Fain is the first president of the UAW to be chosen by a union-wide rank-and-file general membership election instead of by a delegate system. It also marks the first time that an incumbent and his allies in the “administration caucus” have been defeated in the 80 year history of the UAW.  

As Fain celebrated his victory he said he would shake up the culture of the union, which has been rocked by corruption scandals that have resulted in several of its top leaders being convicted on bribery and embezzlement charges. 

“[This] election was not just a race between two candidates, it was a referendum on the direction of the UAW,” said Fain. “For too long, the UAW has been controlled by leadership with a top-down, company/union philosophy who have been unwilling to confront management, and as a result we’ve seen nothing but concessions, corruption, and plant closures.”

The victory by Fain comes after decades of union democracy activists struggling to overcome the corruption of the “Administration Caucus”, which had ruled the UAW for 75 years. 

“I’m hoping that with Shawn Fain we can get rid of all of the trash. We can open the windows and let the sunshine in,” Tiffiny Elise Shipp from Ford UAW Local 600, told Labor Notes, who worked for Fain’s victory. “I’m just hoping that people sign up and get involved.”

(Check out the full perspective of Labor Notes, which spent 40 years fighting against the Administrative Caucus)

However, union democracy activists say that questions remain about Fain, a long-time UAW insider, who was close to many implicated in corruption. It’s easy to run as a union democracy activist as a reformer, but much tougher to implement union democracy reforms once you’re in power.

Additional questions remain about whether the Department of Labor will certify Fain’s election or order a formal re-vote. Incumbent President Ray Curry has filed a formal objection with federal authorities, claiming that thousands of UAW members did not receive votes. 

Whether or not the Department of Labor decides to certify the vote for president of the UAW remains unclear, but what is clear is that Fain is taking over a divided union, where he will be forced to prove that he practices what he preaches when it comes to union democracy. 

I first met Chris Brancato, a vice president of UAW Local 1097 during the 2019 General Motor Strike, when his Rochester, New York based local voted by a margin of 5-to-1 against a concessionary General Motors. It was the highest margin of defeat by any UAW local in the country. 

For years, Brancato had been a financial supporter of  Unite All Workers for Democracy, a UAW reform group that backed Fain. In the first round Brancato voted for Fain, but in the second round runoff, he changed his vote to Ray Curry.

“I didn’t realize how high up Sean Fain was in the UAW and how close Fain was to dirty people,” said Brancato. “I mean, if you’re that close to the dirty guy, don’t come around and pretend you’re like, Mr. Clean, and you’re gonna reform everything”. 

Brancato also finds himself concerned about memos leaked to both Payday Report and the Detroit Free Press calling for widespread purges of UAW staff seen as disloyal. 

“I mean, that doesn’t make sense. You gonna say that everyone, who worked for the UAW was dirty. We could lose good people, who are important to the union that way,” said Brancato. 

Brancato isn’t the only UAW union democracy activist, who is skeptical of Fain’s victory. Will Lehamn ran against Fain and Curry in the first round, but lost badly, receiving only 4.6% of the vote. He cautions against seeing Fain’s victory as a revolt of the membership. Out of 1.1 million eligible active workers and UAW retirees, only 136,485 members voted. 

“The narrow result and low turnout show Fain and Curry struggled equally to win votes beyond their own bureaucratic networks and that neither bureaucrat has significant support among the rank and file,” said Lehman. “In the runoff, although many locals actually took measures to notify workers of the election (they did not in the first round), Fain and Curry each won votes from only about 5 percent of the rank-and-file membership”. 

Fain will likely face many challenges winning the trust of UAW members, who are largely unfamiliar with him. 

Even before the votes count was finalized, UAW President Ray Curry filed a formal complaint with the Department of Labor alleging that tens of thousands of UAW members did not receive ballots. Ironically, it may be Curry’s fault that they did not receive ballots since as UAW President it was his job to ensure that every member received ballots.  

As a result of Curry’s legal appeal, Neil Barofksy, the UAW’s federal monitor, declined to officially certify the results in his initial report stating that “This announcement of the unofficial results does not constitute certification of the election. Instead, the Monitor will issue federal certification of the results after any Run-Off Election protests and appeals have been resolved.”

It’s unclear if the Department of Labor will order a revote. However, The Department of Labor has often ordered unions to hold new elections when they determine that an election wasn’t carried out properly. 

In August of 2019, after current NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss lost to long-time incumbent Bernie Luzner by a margin of only 261 votes, he requested that DOL order a new election. Eventually using threats of federal action, Schleuss was able to force his union to hold a re-do union election, fourth months later, in December of 2019, which Schleuss won by a margin of  which Scheluss won by a margin of 465 votes. 

For now, Curry has stepped aside as president of the UAW and is allowing Fain to be sworn in as president of the UAW this Sunday afternoon in Detroit. If the Department of Labor orders a re-vote, it will likely not be more for several months.

As they await a decision, Curry allies have told Payday Report that the now former president is going to continue to campaign for presidency and heavily critique Fain. 

Curry, a 58-year old Black native of North Carolina, plans to focus heavily on the failure of Fain’s allies to understand the racial dynamics of the UAW. Curry’s allies have highlighted past statements made by Fain’s transition manager Chris Brooks that downplayed non-traditional strikes lead by Black Lives Matters activists.  Additionally, Leaked memos by former senior staffers of Fain’s show that concerns exists among top Black union leaders about Brooks’ poor relationships with Black labor leaders.

Even as it remains unclear whether Curry will be able to force a revote, it is clear that Curry allies will continue to call out Fain at every opportunity they get as Curry seeks a re-vote and chance to overcome the 483-vote margin by, which he lost.  This fight will likely force Fain to prove to his doubters that he is sincere in his beliefs about union. Some UAW members feel that this competition could help the union over the long run. 

“The main thing the elections have brought is accountability. I don’t think the leader at the top will change the culture,” Brancato said. “The main thing that has changed the culture is the folks to get the membership to vote for them. It changed the whole dynamic.”

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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