The United Auto Workers election will head to a runoff in January after neither candidate for president—incumbent Ray Curry nor his main challenger, Shawn Fain— won a majority of votes cast.
In an exclusive interview with Bloomberg Law, Curry discussed his plans for guiding the union’s transition to electric vehicles, cleaning up a corruption scandal that put two of his predecessors behind bars, and contract negotiations with the Detroit automakers next year.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your pitch to voters about why they should vote for you over your runoff opponent, Shawn Fain—especially those who might be eager for change after the corruption scandal?
Well, they could want change, but I’m not part of the corruption scandal. So let’s start right there. I’m no different than he is or any other member right now that would be running for president. That’s the first piece—I have no ties to the corruption scandal whatsoever. That’s number one.
The second piece is that you’ve got to look at leadership, and you’ve got to look at experience. I’m not here to bash Shawn Fain. I can establish why I’m a leader for the international union.
I’ve served the international union in numerous capacities. I’m a thirty-year-plus member right now of the UAW, and have accepted increasing responsibility over those 30 years—local union responsibility; a regional service and rep in a diverse region that had 12 states reflective of the sectors of our membership; an assistant director being able to work with our staff in the region; being able to do political pieces, arbitration pieces, case negotiations at major sites small and large; and then becoming secretary-treasurer where I was implementing policies, procedures, making recommendations for auditors to be replaced and a new compliance director.
Those are all increasing levels of responsibility. I spent additional time attaining additional education on my own. I completed a bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance. I later went back and completed a degree—on my own time again—and got a master’s in business administration.
When you look at that type of experience, there was no candidate in the president’s race that provided that level of experience for our membership.
I am the individual that has sat in that seat, where others can’t tell you they’ve sat in any part of those arenas.
Fain and the other challengers collectively netted more than 60% of the vote. How do you interpret those results? Are they a rebuke of your leadership in any way?
This is the first time in 87 years we’ve had direct elections, and individuals chose to be able to support different candidates. That was reflective of that—I think you’ll see a different reflection in the runoff election.
They key piece is that you’re talking about five candidates from different parts of the country that are coming out of different sectors, and members had the chance to be responsive to their candidate. It’s no different than what happens in our national elections, and it’s not always a reflection or a mandate to take anything way from one particular candidate.
So I don’t see their combined total as being a mandate or representing any opposition against my leadership. Those guys don’t have the same type of leadership style that the membership would combine and vote for.
The one thing that everyone’s got to remember is that in their individual silos, I still attained the highest single count from the membership.
That’s true, but at the same time turnout was low. Why do you think that was, and how do you plan to turn out more voters in the runoff?
We had a situation where, here’s our election happening during a midterm election, where state elections, city elections, county elections, and federal elections are happening across the country. I believe there was voter apathy as a result of it.
We’d like to see it higher on the next round and we believe it will be higher on the next round. And that’s going to be a communications piece and a reminder to everyone about what this turnout looks like and what’s going to take place the next four years. People are waking up and they realize what’s in front of them.
The UAW monitor’s third report accused the union of trying to subvert an investigation into misspent cash by a senior official. US Attorney Dawn Isdon admonished the union for—and these are her words—“gamesmanship” in complying with federal oversight. What about voters who look at that and think “I don’t know if I can trust this guy,” especially since two previous presidents on your slate already ended up in prison.
I’m going to be real clear on one thing: the US attorney was never quoted in any of this process. The monitor provided that context in his report. You’ve never heard the US attorney—the US attorney never spoke against the UAW after the Schneider administration’s settlement of the consent decree that was signed off on by previous president Rory Gamble. That never happened.
We’ve never heard from the US attorney in the public press. We heard from the monitor assigned to the case who gave his verbiage of what she said.
But you met with her, did you not?
Totally, I did.
Did she say anything along those lines in that meeting?
She believed we needed to move forward and the monitor believed we needed to move forward on a different path. We did.
I replaced the general counsel with a new general counsel. We’re proud of that general counsel. We changed outside counsel, and we’ve moved forward.
At the end of that report, the monitor talks about how he’s getting responses totally different, in real time, on issues and concerns. Past documents he asked for, he said they were provided. So the monitor has no shortage of responses from the union right now. On anything he’s asked for, he gets a response in real time. If he wants to meet, we meet in real time, and we’re going to continue that practice.
We’ve done a lot of heavy lifting in three years since 2019, and we’re going to keep moving forward.
Several UAWD candidates already captured key positions, including regional director slots and and the secretary-treasurer position. How are you going to work with people who share such a different vision?
I’ll work with them the same way that every board has worked over 87 years. We’ve got one common goal at the end of the day, and this is the piece that everyone forgets: We’re all still UAW members at the core of this. Any of the outside attachments or related attachments that people want to put on their names, that’s great. But we’re still UAW members.
You know, we move forward, but we will work with the entire team. We’re working with them now. We’re actually going to have a swearing in ceremony on Monday, and we are working to welcome them. I’ve welcomed them already.
Looking toward the Detroit auto negotiations next year, how important is it to you to end the two-tier wage system? How do you plan to do that?
I think we’ve already been doing it. And you know, our opponents are focused on one sector— and they’re focused on auto and they have been raising the issue back and forth. We represent more than auto, and we’ve been eliminating that.
There’s recessionary times that have taken place, and the agreements may be a little lighter between the time period of 2009 and 2011. But those agreements are changing. We’ve improved the agreements in multiple sectors to eliminate tiers. Now the problem is, it’s not just eliminating the tiers, it’s eliminating the traditional time and progression to be able to attain the top wage.
How much does the future of the UAW depend on unionizing battery plants like the one in Lordstown, Ohio?
We’re going to organize them all, and Lordstown is just the first. Lordstown, Spring Hill, Tenn., Kokomo, Ind., Lansing, Mich.—all those locations where the announcement has been made, we’re going to organize.
We’ll win the Lordstown election this week. We’ll start a bargaining pattern with those locations as they come onboard.
You know, there are people who want to make statements about how we should be doing something about new battery plants. Well, you can’t do anything when there’s not employees in a facility, and if a facility has not been constructed. You’ve got to have employees that you want to be able to represent. We’re not going to find ourselves in a legal bind negotiating for employees we don’t represent and aren’t covered with an employer.
The top wage in many of these new battery jobs is lower than the top wage for current assembly line jobs. Will these battery jobs ever be as good?
That is the powertrain of the future. And we believe that powertrain work already has an established pay scale. So there’s not a question about what the powertrain scale is—we’re very clear on what that is.
It’s not a point about trying to establish something new. There is a scale for it. That’s just new technology.
There are still more than 30,000 graduate students on strike at the University of California right now. How important is it for the UAW to diversify into education and other fields, and what makes you qualified to lead that effort?
I’m qualified to lead that effort because of the experience of working in multiple sectors. As president, I’m already leading that work. I’m more than qualified to continue leading that work because I’ve already done it, and I’m doing it each and every day on behalf of those members.
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