DETROIT — United Auto Workers members this month are casting ballots in a historic referendum that could change the union's decades-old system for electing leaders — and they're doing so as workers across the country push for better wages, benefits and working conditions amid a tight labor market and a pandemic that has laid bare long-standing inequities.
Many of the same factors that have prompted thousands of workers to strike and quit their jobs in record numbers also is fueling a movement within the Detroit-based union of some 1 million members to adopt a system that would allow members to directly elect their governing International Executive Board. And activists in the union hope broader momentum within the labor movement could help bolster their cause.
"You do have bleeding into this, this broader discontent among workers and this sense of 'Let's try something new,'" said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California Berkeley. "That doesn't mean the direct election is going to win in this referendum. A lot will depend on turnout, a lot will depend on a number of things. But there's little question that unrelated events, like the broader discontent in the labor force, is bleeding into this and could have an impact on the outcome."
Voting — which began Oct. 19 and concludes Nov. 29 — is happening even as thousands of UAW members themselves have taken to picket lines in recent months to demand better contracts. The referendum has been a topic of discussion, for example, among some of the 10,000 John Deere workers across several states who went on strike Oct. 14. The strike ended last Wednesday after workers secured $8,500 signing bonuses, immediate 10% raises and future 10% raises, among other contract provisions that were better than what the company initially offered.
"Everybody's talking about all the stuff that's going on in the labor movement," said Jeremy Steffen, 42, who works at the agricultural equipment manufacturer's Waterloo, Iowa, drivetrain operations plant. "I haven't had anybody say anything other than direct elections is a no-brainer, that the current system, the status quo, ain't working for the rank-and-file membership."
Steffen is among the more than 100,000 workers who walked out or came close to it in October, part of a wave of strike activity and other labor actions that's been dubbed "Striketober" and now "Strikesgiving." Workers are leaving their jobs at unprecedented rates, too: a record 4.4 million workers quit in September, according to federal labor data.
The Cornell ILR Labor Action Tracker tallied 56 strikes in October and 41 between Nov. 1-22. And from the start of the year through mid-November, there have been more than 300.
The actions this year have involved, among others, UAW members working at Ivy League universities, Alabama coal miners who have been on strike since April, 1,400 Kellogg's factory workers across four states including Michigan, 60,000 film and TV crew members, and tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers protesting a management proposal to establish a two-tier wage structure.
"After many dark nights over decades for the labor movement, we're seeing the resurgence of spirit and confidence in workers," Shaiken said. "They know it's a tight labor market. They've done heroic things through the pandemic in many occupations, from assembly lines in auto factories to emergency medical technicians. And the result is, they're no longer content to accept new concessions at a time of stratospheric rises in executive salaries and record profitability for corporations."