Dissidents in the United Auto Workers (UAW) are pushing to change the way the union’s executive board officers are elected. According to UAW bylaws, it’s the delegates who vote to determine who becomes president of the International. The members get to vote for the delegates, but that’s as far as their involvement goes.
One of the things that sticks in the membership’s craw is that UAW president Ron Gettelfinger’s successor, Bob King, has already been named. He was “chosen” way back in December. Even though the delegates themselves haven’t yet been voted upon by the locals, King (presumably running unopposed) has already been anointed, which, to even the casual observer, has to seem wildly undemocratic, if not downright corrupt.
Although it’s not uncommon for labor officials (I was once a union president) to howl at the moon whenever they hear rumors that the rank-and-file is clamoring for more of a voice in the electoral or decision-making process, most union honchos have nothing against the democratic process….at least not in principle.
Considering the alternatives, the “one man, one vote” concept is probably the best political arrangement yet devised. What it fails to yield in wisdom, it makes up for in sincerity.
Personally, on a national level, I would be in favor of doing away with the Electoral College and relying solely on the popular vote, an arrangement that would have resulted in George W. Bush not becoming president in 2000, when Al Gore got 500,000 more popular votes.
The Electoral College is not only an anachronism, it seems to be a contradiction. While simple majorities are allowed to elect city mayors, assemblymen, congressmen, senators and governors, the voting public is denied the ultimate say when it comes to the president. What’s so unique about the office of president? Why are we prohibited from choosing him or her directly?
But back to labor unions. There are two reasons why unions fear and loathe unfettered democracy, and they’re both fairly obvious. The first is selfish, the second is practical.
The first reason: Most high-level union officials realize that if they get voted out of office they will never again land a job this sweet, ever. While many International presidents have a college degree and the opportunities that come with it (Gettelfinger does, and Andy Stern, who, to the glee of many, is leaving the SEIU, is an Ivy League grad), most don’t.
For most of these guys, wearing a coat and tie and working in an air-conditioned office instead of on the factory floor is a bonanza, a fantasy job, a dream come true. You get paid a lot more, your pension is way better, and—let’s be honest—you don’t really “work,” not in the sense that working people do. Naturally, they’re going to aggressively oppose anything (i.e., democracy) that could rock the boat.
The second: By taking the vote out of the hands of the few (the delegates) and giving it to the many (the rank-and-file), you’re taking it away from those who know what’s going on, and giving it those who don’t have a clue. That’s the primary fear—that the people who eat, drink and breathe union issues will be nudged aside, and the people who wouldn’t know a grievance pad from a phone book will be calling the shots.
Before we attack this view as condescending or “elitist,” let’s look back at the national term-limits initiative that gained steam a few years ago when groups of aroused, disaffected voters decided that the only way to save America was by not allowing certain people to run for office. Simply voting against these people wasn’t enough for them. They wanted to outlaw them.
The absurdity of term-limits—which, on the surface, seemed so daring and rebelliously democratic—lay not only in the fact that it forbid our smartest, most experienced politicians from making any future contributions, but that it was, by definition, virulently anti-democratic. Hey, can I vote for (or against) that senator? No! He’s not allowed to run.
By now, of course, we’ve all learned what those Washington D.C. lobbyists were thinking while the term-limits initiative was being discussed. They were squirming in anticipation, licking their chops at the prospect of fleecing this new crop of bright-eyed neophytes, who, despite their good intentions, would have been easy pickings for these seasoned professionals.
The same can be said of management’s relationship to the union’s electoral apparatus. While it’s true that management has grown accustomed to delegate-elected officers, and probably, on some level, regards them as unimaginative and predictable, it’s also true that management could never fool these veteran union guys the way they could fool a bunch of well-meaning rookies. Union professionals simply wouldn’t fall for the same rhetoric that union amateurs would.
As for the UAW going to a direct-vote format, it’s a toss-up.
On the other hand, no one—not even the most radical dissident—can deny that the UAW has done very well for itself under the old “undemocratic” delegate system. Indeed, for decades the UAW represented the gold standard of industrial unions, the first big-time union to get all the important across-the-board goodies (paid vacations, medical, pensions, overtime, etc.) we’ve all come to expect.
In fact, the local I formerly belonged to, AWPPW Local 672, more or less used the Autoworkers’ contract as a template for its own negotiations. And we weren’t the only union to do that. Virtually every union in America admired the UAW and wanted the contract the UAW had.
Because the auto industry is in such distress, some of the rank-and-file are going to see direct voting as a way out of it. Having lost hundreds of thousands of jobs and been forced into one dreadful concessionary contract after another, the members are going to look for change.
And change usually includes blaming the leadership. It’s understandable. Blaming the leadership is what you do when you’ve been bombarded with bad news. In any event, the UAW won’t know if “one man, one vote” is the answer to their problems until they try it. All we can do is wish them good luck.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org