Perhaps one of the most important lessons that I learned by getting involved with the Columbia graduate workers’ strike this year, is that winning union democracy matters as much as (if not more) as winning a contract. Only by giving rank-and-file workers the opportunity to organize for themselves—and realizing through that experience, that winning requires organizing—do unions connect with larger anti-capitalist struggles. It’s only once our strike ended that I learned that the rank-and-file democracy we embodied had never been a given, but something that had to be actively wrenched out of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110 leadership. From this perspective, I, as well as many others of my fellow members of our union, are extremely excited about the Democracy In Action slate, challenging the current leadership in the upcoming elections. Willem Morris—an undergrad organizer at Columbia University—provides us with some context in this piece originally published by him on June 15 on the Futures Past Substack. Minor edits have been made for publishing style.
– Ye Eun
Zachary Valdez is running for President of the executive board of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110 in the election taking place this month. He is running as part of the Democracy in Action (DIA) slate, a group of rank-and-file organizers whose platform focuses on winning stronger contracts, fighting for social justice, and encouraging union democracy.
DIA is the first local election slate to be endorsed by Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), the national UAW reform caucus which recently led the successful push for the change to a direct voting system—“one member, one vote”—for choosing top UAW leadership.
Valdez grew up queer in New Mexico. He recalls “living in my head and away from others, to avoid having to disclose my queerness, laid the groundwork for me to realize a better world was possible.”
Valdez remembers when his single-mother couldn’t afford to get his teeth straightened in high school, creating an additional hardship as he already struggled to fit in. Valdez is currently fighting for a contract as a member of the bargaining committee for the Columbia University Support Staff. He says: “Becoming a union member made me realize how much better our life could have been if only my mom had a union growing up.”
Leandra Barrett Diaz, who goes by the nickname Lee, the candidate for Vice-President on the DIA slate, grew up queer in southern Texas. The daughter of a white long distance heavy-haul truck driver and a Chicana public school teacher, she was acutely aware of how racism and nativism shaped every social dynamic around her growing up. She serves as a shop steward for the New York University (NYU) Graduate Student Organizing Committee.
Valdez and Diaz reflect characteristics common to other young workers helping to spark the new labor upsurge. They grew up in some way on the margins of society and were initially politicized around issues beyond just economic exploitation. Before leading the organization of the first union at Starbucks, Jaz Brisack was an abortion advocate in Mississippi; Chris Smalls speaks extensively about his experiences with racism at Amazon. Each of these politicized young workers is now turning their energy to the power of organized labor.
Some traditional unions like the UAW have directed this new energy into new union organizing. UAW Local 2110 has rapidly expanded in the last decade, representing workers at important cultural institutions in New York City, such as the the Museum of Modern Art, Columbia, and NYU.
But this new energy has also created tension within the UAW, as workers with raised expectations have pushed for more militancy to win stronger contracts after winning union recognition. Instead of supporting rank-and-file member organizing, the current Local 2110 leadership has sought to control it and turn this worker activism on and off like a faucet. The current leadership has discouraged strikes, advocated against “one member, one vote,” and attempted to crack down on some social justice contract demands.
New Local 2110 leadership from the DIA slate could build worker power in New York City by energizing workers to fight for stronger contracts and more democratic decision-making. A victory for the DIA slate could also build momentum for the national union reform movement before the UAW Constitutional Convention next month.
The UAW was founded in the 1930’s amidst a surge of militant labor action taken by American factory workers. In its early years, the UAW was a union that fought for workplace improvements and other progressive causes.
Walter Reuther won the UAW presidency in 1947, a role in which he would serve until his death in 1970. Reuther was a skilled negotiator and he consolidated his power by surrounding himself with staff and leadership loyal to him, in order to crush the ascendant left-wing within the union. These Reuther supporters made up a group called the “Administration Caucus,” a group that has held power in the UAW for more than 70 years.
In 1950, Reuther negotiated an agreement between UAW members and General Motors, known as the “Treaty of Detroit,” which won dramatic increases in wages for workers in exchange for their ceding control of the shop floor to management, and agreeing not to strike.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the UAW experienced a militant worker upsurge driven by similar conditions to today. Black auto workers, activated during the civil rights movement, formed Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), a radical reform movement within the union. In 1973, Arab-American UAW workers went on a wildcat strike to protest the union’s investment in Israeli bonds.
The UAW leadership, led by the Administration Caucus, worked with management to firmly suppress this rank-and-file rebellion (at times using force) and regain control over the union.
After decades of collaboration with management, the UAW struggled to rekindle shop floor militancy to respond to an onslaught from capital in the 1970s and 1980s which weakened factory working conditions and union wages. As a result of changes which the UAW was not organized to defend—technology, globalization, and the relocation of factories from unionized locations in the northern U.S. to non-unionized locations in the southern U.S.—UAW membership declined from over 1.5 million in 1980 to less than 750,000 in 2000.
Today, the Administration Caucus still holds all 13 seats on the UAW international executive board, more than 70 years after Reuther founded it. For decades, the international executive board has decided who is nominated to lead the union and then delegates vote on leadership at the UAW convention which is closely influenced by the Administration Caucus. Nelson Lichtenstein describes how this control has worked:
The Administration Caucus wields a variety of levers that create loyalty among the thousand-plus convention delegates: the promise of a staff job, support in a local election, or conversely, criticism and marginalization from above. The eight UAW regional directors, also chosen at convention, are the key disciplinarians. They keep close tabs on signs of discontent among the locals and can recommend appointment to or dismissal from staff jobs.
Decades of this one-party leadership without any organizing of the rank-and-file to build power and contest concessionary contracts, left a brittle organization that enabled large-scale corruption within the UAW. A 2020 corruption probe revealed cases of bribery and embezzlement from 11 lead union officials, including two former UAW presidents. These officials stole more than $1.5 million from membership dues and accepted $3.5 million in bribes from Fiat Chrysler.
The prosecution of the election officials also resulted in a 2020 agreement between the UAW and the U.S. Department of Justice which stated that the union must hold a referendum to determine if the union should change to direct election—“one member, one vote”—of union leadership.
Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), an organization formed by auto workers who had challenged UAW corruption for decades, successfully led the push for “one member, one vote,” as 64 percent of UAW voters approved the change last December.
Ray Jensen, a member of Local 774 at General Motors’ Tonawanda Engine Plant near Buffalo, expressed member sentiment that drove the change: “The UAW is fantastic. It’s the leadership that’s given us a black eye”
Last week, the UAWD steering committee unanimously chose to endorse the entire DIA slate running for leadership of UAW Local 2110, marking the first time UAWD has endorsed a leadership slate. 79 percent of Local 2110 members voted for “one member, one vote” in the recent election. Andrew Bergman, a member of the UAWD steering committee explains:
Unlike the 2110 United Slate, which was hand-picked by current 2110 leadership and who loudly opposed direct elections in last years’ referendum, DIA 2110 members led the campaign for 1M1V [one member, one vote] in 2110 and across Region 9A.
The recent history of Local 2110 exemplifies the tension between leadership and membership democracy within the UAW. Local leadership has not facilitated communication across shops within the Local, and the Local’s bylaws do not allow members to call general membership meetings for the Local; only leadership can.
The DIA slate has emphasized a commitment to transparency, cross-shop membership engagement, and a regular meeting of the Local general membership. They also plan to create a new rank-and-file organizing committee that can cultivate new leaders to help organize new shops, enabling Local 2110 members working at universities, museums, and theaters to directly organize their friends in the same industries.
The anti-democratic practices of the Local leadership do not necessarily come from a place of malice; these practices are often defended as necessary on the basis that the leadership knows what is best for the union. In fact, the leadership has successfully organized dozens of new shops into the Local in the past decade. Strikes and contract fights can divert resources away from this new organizing.
But by insulating itself from membership pressure, Local 2110 leadership has been able to disregard new members once they have joined the union, resulting in a broad but hollow union. Leadership has consistently discouraged militant action necessary to win strong contracts.
This spring, the Columbia Support Staff, a diverse shop representing jobs ranging from administrative assistants to dining hall staff, voted to begin organizing for a strike authorization vote to gear up for winning a contract after Columbia offered a lower wage increase than was given in the pre-pandemic contract. Local 2110 leadership frustrated the shop’s bargaining committee by refusing to share a full list of contact information for members within the shop, instead giving a partial list to each bargaining committee member. Zachary Valdez remarks: “It’s almost as if Maida [Rosenstein, the President of Local 2110] wanted to determine the outcome of these negotiations from the start.”
Then, as the union discussed the idea of a strike to disrupt commencement at Columbia University, the Local leadership intervened to discourage the action. The shop is still in the process of fighting for a contract and they are still struggling against leadership to organize the unit for a potential strike.
Last year, the NYU Graduate Student Organizing Committee included a proposal during bargaining to bar New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers from entering university buildings, a popular demand within the shop’s membership. In the days leading up to the union’s strike deadline, Local 2110 leadership and legal counsel intervened and pressured the bargaining committee to withdraw the proposal, claiming that striking for the demand would be illegal and could provoke retaliation against striking workers by NYU.
On the eve of the final bargaining session before the strike deadline, members of the bargaining committee debated the issue for hours before finally deciding to drop the demand at the next day’s bargaining session. But at that session, the university presented first and introduced a side letter to the union contract that would “convene [a] health and safety committee” to address “graduate employees’ concerns regarding the presence of law enforcement”—apparently affirming GSOC’s argument that police posed a threat to graduate workers’ health and safety, and was thus a mandatory subject of bargaining and a demand that graduate workers could legally strike over.
The recent history of the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) provides perhaps the best example of the tension between Local 2110 leadership and membership democracy. In 2018, without membership knowledge, regional UAW leadership negotiated a bargaining framework at Columbia that included an agreement that the union would not strike for 16 months while bargaining for the first contract. In response to the undemocratic practice, workers formed a reform group, the Columbia Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (C-AWDU), in an attempt to reform the union.
In 2020, C-AWDU members filed a complaint with the UAW after Olga Brudastova, a Local staffer who is now a candidate for Local 2110 president on the United slate, publicly favored a slate of candidates that C-AWDU was challenging for seats on the SWC bargaining committee.
In the summer of 2021, C-AWDU finally won a majority on the SWC bargaining committee after SWC membership voted to reject a contract negotiated by the previous bargaining committee.
Working with rank-and-file members, the new C-AWDU bargaining committee developed a new bargaining framework to ensure that it could not make decisions without membership approval. The bargaining committee also held weekly meetings, open to all members, that UAW staff were not allowed to attend. This way, they could strategize directly with rank-and-file.
The new bargaining committee led a ten-week strike that won a contract with major concessions on all three of its main demands and was approved by more than 97 percent of membership. Bargaining committee member Becca Roskill explains: “Nearly everything we did that worked was the exact opposite of what the local UAW staff had told us to do.”
But, after winning the contract, the Student Workers of Columbia will not be voting in the Local 2110 leadership election. In every annual report filed from 2019-2021, the UAW stated that SWC “will merge into Local 2110 UAW at the signing of a contract.” But, after the C-AWDU led strike, when SWC expressed the desire to join Local 2110 to the UAW Regional 9A director, Beverley Brakeman, a senior member of the Administration Caucus, she informed them that they would instead need to form their own local. It’s clear from the size of the SWC unit and its relationship with the 2110 leadership that they would’ve been a significant force in contesting this election.
New Local 2110 leadership that encourages fighting for stronger contracts, advocating for social justice, and reviving union democracy could transform the Local that represents workers at some of the most important institutions in New York City. If DIA, the first leadership slate endorsed by UAWD wins the election, it could also set a precedent for more democratic changes within the UAW and more challenges to incumbent Administration Caucus leadership.
As a new generation of energized workers joins the labor movement, it is essential to build democratic unions that allow workers to take action to improve their lives and the world.
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Willem was co-chair of Columbia YDSA in in the spring of 2021 (during the Columbia tuition strike and the spring SWC strike) and this year he is serving as the co-chair of the YDSA National Labor Committee.