Shortly before going to press we learned that Shawn Fain, the presidential candidate of the UAW Members United reform slate, will become the next president of the United Auto Workers union. Fain’s victory is a watershed event in the history of this storied union. It is the first time since Walter Reuther became UAW president in 1946 that the office was seriously contested by a challenger outside the union’s Administration Caucus, which ran the UAW for decades. Reuther ran the union in a top-down fashion that allowed little space for internal democracy, but during his tenure the UAW made indispensable contributions to developing the civil rights movement and the New Left. It is easy to forget, for example, that the Students for a Democratic Society meeting that produced the Port Huron Statement was held at a UAW retreat center. In many ways, the UAW was the engine room of the mid-twentieth century US left.
Since Reuther’s death in 1970, the union steadily declined in size, strength, and moral authority. It pursued a seemingly endless course of concessionary bargaining amid the auto industry’s restructuring, resulting in the severe erosion of the standards it won for auto workers at the height of its power. Its one-party internal regime went the way of all such systems. The leaders became detached from the members at the base, leading to all manner of venality and corruption. A federal investigation beginning in 2014 found widespread evidence of embezzlement, favoritism, and collusion with the very companies the union is supposed to fight. A former UAW president and other formerly high-ranking officials went to prison, and a federal monitor was appointed to make sure that the union actually carries out court-mandated reforms.
With Fain at the helm, two of the country’s most important private sector unions – the UAW and the Teamsters – will be run by reformers elected with mandates to root out corruption and complacency and to take the fight to the bosses. It is possible that both unions strike their biggest employers – the “Big Three” automakers and UPS, respectively – around the same time later this year. If that happens, nearly half a million workers at the core of the industrial economy will be on the picket lines. They will need support and solidarity to win those fights, and democratic socialists have an important role to play as both union members and community supporters. Stay tuned, and get ready to mobilize. If you’re interested in learning more about what you can do, get in touch with DSA’s National Labor Commission.
This issue of Socialist Forum digs deep into the movement archives to republish a 1973 piece on the situation in the UAW, originally published in the house organ of one of DSA’s predecessor organizations. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of the union, and shows that democratic socialists and rank-and-file activists have been fighting to transform it for a long time. The issue also features articles on union organizing in the cannabis industry, the politics of sports team ownership, the war in Ukraine and the question of Taiwan, and reflections on democratic socialist electoral strategy. As always, we welcome responses and feedback socialistforum[at]dsausa.org.