In Democratic Primary, UAW Faces Choice Between Ideals and Accommodation


If there was ever a major labor union in the United States that embodied the hope for genuine democracy, that union was Detroit’s United Auto Workers.

The biggest exception to the narrowly focused “business unionism” that typified much of the American labor movement, the UAW was born in a frenzy of organizing in the New Deal era and reached its apex under Walter Reuther in the two decades that followed. Son of a German-born West Virginia socialist, Reuther carved out a career as spokesman for the left wing of American labor, trying to broaden the movement’s scope beyond wages and benefits to take up the causes of civil rights and economic justice for all people, union members or not.

At his most radical, Reuther preached what he called “economic democracy,” arguing that critical business decisions ought to be made by workers as well as managers. “We must wipe out the double standard in America and in the world which divides the masses from the minority that controls the preponderance of economic power,” he wrote in 1947.

Seven decades later, however, the UAW is on the ropes, and the memory of its postwar heyday is dim. The Democratic presidential primary of 2016 will test the union leadership’s resolve. Will the UAW keep playing defense and endorse establishment candidate Hillary Clinton, despite her weak record on protecting American workers? Or will Solidarity House cast its lot with Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, whose insurgent campaign embodies many of the goals the UAW once sought to achieve?

Polling the Rank and File

At a mid-February canvass training at the Detroit headquarters of the Sanders campaign, housed in a former steel distribution warehouse turned art gallery in the city’s North End, several UAW members said they hoped the union would take a stand for the socialist candidate.

“When [Bernie] said ‘bring back the middle class,’ I mean, the UAW started the middle class,” said a young, African-American member of UAW Local 7, a native Detroiter now residing in the Macomb County suburbs. He asked not to be named, as he was part of the new class of lower-paid “second-tier” workers created under recent UAW bargaining agreements, and enjoyed far less job security as a result. Local 7 represents workers at Chrysler’s Jefferson North Assembly, the only remaining auto plant located entirely within the Motor City. (GM’s Poletown plant straddles the Detroit-Hamtramck border.)

“If he gets elected, [the union] could get the numbers they had back in the seventies or eighties or more,” he said. The UAW now has about 400,000 members, scarcely one-quarter of its 1979 peak of 1.5 million. Fittingly, that peak came in 1979, just before Macomb County’s “Reagan Democrats” helped elect a president who effectively slammed the door on labor.

When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, some hoped he would turn back the anti-labor tide. Instead, he spearheaded Congressional ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), defying the majority of Democrats in Congress, and setting the stage for automakers to decamp for the low-wage, non-union environment of Mexico. According to the UAW, “U.S. trade deficits with Mexico cost almost 700,000 U.S. jobs by 2010.  Most of the jobs displaced were in manufacturing.”

For Al Benchich, retired 12-year president of UAW Local 909 in Warren, the Clinton association with NAFTA ought to be enough to decide the union’s 2016 endorsement, and not in favor of Hillary.

“She’s supported NAFTA, and from my perspective, the union should be endorsing Bernie,” said Benchich. He noted that Clinton has backed off from her initial support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the mammoth trade deal which many unions, including the UAW, fear could further devastate American manufacturing. Yet in his perspective, that’s too little, too late.

Benchich hopes that the UAW will endorse Sanders, perhaps on the strength of rank and file sentiment. “They’re polling the membership now for the first time ever, which is a good thing,” he said.

The Choice

Benchich noted that the UAW’s top leadership, the International Executive Board, is split between supporters of Sanders and Clinton. Vice-President Cindy Estrada, a Southwest Detroit native and University of Michigan alumnus, is a vocal supporter of Sanders. During Sanders’ first campaign visit to Michigan on February 15, he was invited to speak by UAW Local 600 in Dearborn, long one of the union’s most outspoken locals, and drew an overflow crowd. (See video above.)

However, much of the American labor leadership has already cast its lot with Clinton. Sanders’ most prominent labor endorsements comes from the Communication Workers of America (CWA), representing about 700,000 members. The UAW endorsement would be his next largest endorsement in membership terms, topping the American Postal Workers Union and National Nurses United. However, given the UAW’s history as the vanguard of American unionism, its endorsement would be an especially welcome prize for Bernie, especially as the March 8 Michigan primary approaches.

We can only imagine the conversations on this topic inside Solidarity House, the UAW’s headquarters on the Detroit River.

In a 1948 debate, the UAW’s Walter Reuther made note of a striking statistic. Just before the Great Depression, he observed, “36,000 families at the top of our economic pyramid had more income in 1929 than 12,000,000 families at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

Senator Sanders, of course, is well known for his references to the fact that today, the top tenth of one percent in the United States owns more wealth than the bottom ninety percent.

In 2016, will the UAW take sides with the candidate who’s carried on Reuther’s critique of the concentration of wealth? Or will it fall into line behind the political dynasty that masterminded the Democratic Party’s right turn?

We’ll have to wait and see.

For more on the history of the UAW and Walter Reuther, see native Detroiter Kevin Boyle’s The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism and Nelson Lichtenstein’s Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit.