Bloomberg Law
Oct. 31, 2022, 9:00 AM

Past Sins, Future Challenges Hang Over First UAW Election

Ian Kullgren
Ian Kullgren

The United Auto Workers faces its biggest leadership challenge since 1950, when then-President Walter Reuther made a landmark deal with General Motors Co. to improve pay and benefits conditions in exchange for five years of labor peace, setting the standard for the US labor movement.

Workers for the first time will directly elect someone to carry on Reuther’s legacy— a change that could reorder the union hierarchy and usher in a more combative round of contract negotiations with Detroit automakers next year. Nearly 400,000 members are filling out mail ballots, due back Nov. 28, to pick the next president and top officers under a 2021 referendum that replaced a delegate selection system with member voting.

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The vote comes at a time of converging crises for the union. A sprawling corruption scandal sent two former presidents to prison and sparked a government takeover in 2020. Foreign competitors and domestic, non-union startups threaten Detroit automakers’ bottom line. And an epochal shift to electric-powered cars could displace tens of thousands of workers in the next decade.

But it also comes at a time of resurgence—especially for those looking to change the labor movement from the inside. Scores of strikes and union drives at companies like Inc. and Apple Inc. have refocused attention on working conditions. Meanwhile, an outsider recently took over the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, ousting the handpicked successor to former President James P. Hoffa, a power shift that could play out in other unions.

“This represents an opportunity for challengers from various factions,” said Marick Masters, a Wayne State University professor who studies the industrial unions. “It’s obviously provoked a lot of interest. It’s energized the rank-and-file.”

Gary Jones, center, former president of the United Auto Workers, speaks during a General Motors Co. event at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, July 16, 2019.
Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images

‘Residue of Doubt’

Incumbent UAW President Ray Curry—the third person in four years to hold the job—is seen as the strongest candidate, observers of the race say. But his victory is far from certain.

Curry is a member of the Administration Caucus, which has held power at the UAW for generations and, to his benefit, can take credit for the successes of the union’s heyday. More recently, its leaders guided the union through the 2009 bankruptcies of Chrysler and GM, as well as a historic six-week strike in 2019 that resulted in wage increases of more than 6% and an $11,000 signing bonus for full-time workers.

But in the past few years it’s become the center of an embezzlement scandal that resulted in more than a dozen convictions of union and management-side employees. In July, court-appointed watchdog Neil Barofsky accused the union of covering up an investigation into misspent cash, painting the portrait of a union leadership still intent on covering up misdeeds. Barofsky elevated the matter to US Attorney Dawn Ison, believing the union may have violated a 2021 agreement that resolved the US Justice Department’s criminal probe.

In a report submitted to the court, Barofsky said the union’s cooperation had “veered sharply in the wrong direction,” saying Curry and his deputies reneged on an agreement to hand over summaries of investigative interviews and stonewalled document releases.

UAW spokeswoman Sandra Engle declined to make Curry available for an interview, directing the inquiry to Curry’s campaign. The campaign didn’t respond to subsequent requests for comment.

In a July statement, Engle said the report “documents a sometimes-difficult process, but it ends on a note we are on the right path.”

But the pattern of behavior could land on Curry’s shoulders.

“It’s not a slam-dunk for the Administration Caucus,” Masters said. “There’s a residue of doubt out there. How deep it runs in the membership remains to be seen.”

An Electric Future

Four candidates are challenging Curry. The most viable is widely believed to be Shawn Fain, an automotive electrician who worked his way to a job at the union’s headquarters. He’s backed by Unite All Workers for Democracy, a reform group that calls for a harder bargaining stance against automakers.

Fain directs the Stellantis (formerly known as Chrysler) national training center in Warren, Mich.— the same place where UAW officials were caught taking $3.5 million in bribes used for golf trips, cigars, liquor, and other spoils. It sparked the broader corruption investigation that landed two former presidents, Dennis Williams and Gary Jones, behind bars.

“I always felt like our leadership was too close to the company,” Fain said in an interview with Bloomberg Law. “I’ve been put in this role basically in the aftermath, and so I’ve been working with the federal government, with teams of attorneys—everything—trying to clean everything up and reorganize.”

Fain said he’s grown increasingly frustrated with Curry and the top brass, who he feels didn’t try hard enough to stop plants from closing in the wake of the Great Recession.

More crucially, Curry doesn’t have a plan for the transition to electric vehicles, Fain said. GM, Stellantis, and Ford are planning to build at least seven factories in partnership with foreign battery makers. It’s unclear whether they’ll rely on union labor, or pay as much as current assembly line jobs, which top out at $32 an hour. GM has said it will stop making gas-powered cars by 2035.

“We all say we’re out in front of this but I don’t see it,” Fain said. “A lot of these plants aren’t UAW, they’re not covered under our master agreements. To me, leadership should be taking action on that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Genevieve Douglas at; Martha Mueller Neff at

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