When Sean Fenn sought the presidency of the United Automobile Workers union last year, he ran platform He promised: “No corruption. No concession. No standards.”
That pledge expressed many members’ frustration with years of union scandal and concessions to the three big Detroit automakers, including the creation of a lower wage floor for new employees. The platform helped propel Mr Fenn to the top job – where he has led a growing wave of walkouts in recent weeks to demand more favorable contract terms.
But the platform largely predated Mr. Fenn’s candidacy. It was created by a group called Unite All Workers for Democracy, which was officially formed as a caucus in 2020 – essentially, a political party within the union.
The group set out to overthrow the ruling party, known as the Administration Caucus, which had run the union for more than 70 years. In 2022, Unite All Workers ditched its party line, recruited candidates and stepped up campaigning to elect them.
When matters calmed down, the slate won half the seats on the union’s 14-member executive board, of which Mr. Fenn, formerly a member of the union staff, was chairman. Unite All Workers’ role helps explain why the union has taken such a tough line with automakers.
“We had a platform that we ran on, and we’re trying to move that platform forward,” said Scott Halldison, the group’s founder and a longtime Ford Motor employee in Chicago. “Shawn has been really articulate about what we’re trying to achieve.”
The first fruits of that approach may have emerged on Wednesday, when the union and Ford negotiators agreed to the terms of a new four-year contract that also includes wage increases of about 25 percent over four years, according to the union.
“We maximized impact on companies,” Mr. Fenn said in a Facebook livestream. The deal is subject to ratification by the company’s union workers.
Since at least the 1980s, UAW members have formed groups to challenge top union officials, or at least push them to greater confrontation with automakers. Efforts gained further momentum in 2007, when the union accepted the levels as a way to stabilize the automakers’ financial situation. (General Motors and Chrysler later filed for bankruptcy; Ford avoided it.)
But the Administration Caucus always had a trump card: the union leadership was not directly elected by members. Rather, future leaders were effectively selected by existing leaders, then approved by delegates at a convention every four years.
This changed after a corruption scandal in which two recent UAW presidents were charged with embezzlement in 2020. consent decree As with the federal government, members voted in referendums on whether or not to directly elect union leaders. Unite All Workers, which was pressing for change, launched an all-out campaign to persuade union members to support “one member one vote”.
When the initiative passed by a nearly two-to-one ratio, Unite All Workers, whose members pay annual fees, was poised to become a kingmaker of sorts in the union’s 2022 elections. The group had a budget of over $100,000, two full-time staff members and hundreds of volunteer organizers.
“It was clear that we could use the same infrastructure of employees and volunteers to compete in the election”, said Mike Cannon, a retired UAW member who serves on the Unite All Workers steering committee. “The only question at that time was, would we have a candidate?”
all workers unite announced Anyone who wants to join its campaign must fill out a detailed questionnaire and attend at least one meeting with its members.
The group wanted to ensure that its endorsed candidates were committed to running the union with broader input from ordinary members and bargaining harder with employers. it Desired An end to wage levels that are said to have divided and demoralized workers, and a focus on organizing new members, particularly among electric vehicle and battery workers.
Among those who answered the call was Mr. Fain, who at the time was a staff member at the Union division responsible for Stellantis, parent of Chrysler, Jeep and Ram. During his interview process, Mr. Fenn described how, as a local official in Indiana in 2007, he had helped lead a protest against a two-tier pay structure agreed to by the union, and how after joining Headquarters employees had argued for more favorable contract terms.
Some members of the group suspected that an employee of the old guard might be a reformer. But other UAW dissidents vouched for him. “I knew the claims were legitimate,” said Martha Gravett, a longtime Chrysler employee who served on the steering committee of Unite All Workers.
The group endorsed Mr. Fenn and six other candidates for the union’s 14-member executive board, and all seven won.
As president, Mr. Fenn has appointed critics of the former leadership as his top aides, including a man who served on the Unite All Workers steering committee. Board members, including Mr Fenn, attended some of the group’s monthly membership meetings and participated in one of its WhatsApp chats.
Many of the group’s priorities became demands In the union’s contract negotiations, and Mr. Fenn told They hope the momentum gained from the strike will be used to organize non-union companies like Tesla and Honda, with a goal of uniting all workers.
But not all relationships between group and union leadership are the same.
Some board members running on the Unite All Workers slate have at times taken positions in tension with the group’s priorities. In recent weeks, the union’s second-ranking official, Margaret Mock, has expressed concerns to fellow board members about the cost of the walkout on the union’s budget. At a special board meeting last week, he introduced a proposal intended to reduce expenses for organizing events during the strike, according to two people familiar with the meeting. The board rejected the proposal; Ms. Mock did not respond to a request for comment.
For its part, Unite All Workers holds itself accountable to rank-and-file members, not by extension the leaders it helped elect. Unite All Workers, on a temporary deal with one of the Big Three automakers plan to hire A task force to provide an evaluation of the proposal to association members. After this the group members will decide whether to support it or not.
“I would say it’s not automatic that the caucus supports an agreement,” Andrew Bergman said. Who works in the Unite All Workers Steering Committee.
Still, as a practical matter, the group is highly unlikely to oppose a deal, given Mr Fenn has pressed forcefully for his main priorities.
“For years, we have been playing defense every step of the way, and we are losing,” Mr. Fenn said in a Video streamed online On Friday it was explained why the strike would continue. “When we vote on a temporary agreement, it will be because your leadership and your council think we have gotten every possible dollar.” This week, the union expanded strikes at Stellantis and General Motors’ largest U.S. factories.
This approach has raised concerns among employers and business groups. John Drake, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Detroit automakers may struggle to remain competitive after the strike, and Mr. Fain appeared to be going too far in seeking concessions.
“It feels like there really is no strategy here,” Mr. Drake said. “It seems like pain is the goal.”
The best analogy for uniting all workers might be for a group called brand new congressCreated by supporters of progressive Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders to help elect congressional candidates starting in 2018.
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Brand New Congress urged an unknown New York bartender and activist named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to challenge the longtime incumbent in the Democratic congressional primary. A Sister Group provided him With training and campaign infrastructure. After he won, two people associated with the groups joined his staff.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has since become far more prominent than those early supporters, and in theory she could take a position contrary to their progressive stances. But in practice, this is not likely. The worldview is embedded in their political identity.
Mr. Fenn’s story is similar: a once obscure progressive who is catapulted into a position of power by a group of rebels and once there he becomes determined to enforce their shared principles. Except that, by supporting him and his allies, Unite All Workers helped win not just some legislative seats, but the reins of the entire union.
Unite All Workers steering committee member Val Kohnert-Yount supported Mr. Fenn’s nomination for president at the union’s convention last year, after she said she had to rely on government assistance as a new parent decades ago. Talked to him about it.
“I remember thinking that this guy hasn’t forgotten where he came from – he’s exactly the same person,” Ms Kohnert-Yount said. “We did our best to support the candidate we believed in.”