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Organizing for union democracy

An interview with five Tempest members in the UAW’s rank-and-file caucus

Nevena Pilipović-Wengler interviews Tempest members Ron Lare (Local 600), Judy Wraight (Local 600), Ye-Eun Jong (Local 2710), Toly Rinberg (Local 5118), and Andrew Bergman (Local 5118) about their history-making rank-and-file caucus UAWD in the UAW.

Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), the rank-and-file caucus in United Auto Workers (UAW), has been making history by challenging the long-entrenched Administration Caucus— which repressively ruled over the union for more than 70 years—and organizing for democratic, militant, and rank-and-file unionism.

In the past three years, UAWD’s organizing successes include a 2021 campaign that won One Member, One Vote in a referendum on the direct elections of UAW top officers, increasing strike pay, moving up its payout from day eight to day one at the 2022 UAW Constitutional Convention, and, most recently, breaking ground by winning the campaign to elect seven reform candidates to the UAW International Executive Board (IEB), including Shawn Fain as president. UAWD’s successes come at a crucial moment, as UAW members, following other workers across the country, are starting to believe they can win back decades of concessions made by business unionist leadership including by rejecting tiered contracts. UAWD’s rise also comes as the auto sector begins transitioning decisively toward electric vehicle (EV) production, which has fueled the creation of new EV tiers that pit workers against addressing climate change. A fighting UAW, led by UAWD organizers, can push for a worker-led transition that ensures climate justice includes a just transition for auto workers.

Tempest member and former UAW worker Nevena Pilipović-Wengler interviews five UAWD organizers and Tempest members – Ron Lare (Local 600), Judy Wraight (Local 600), Ye-Eun Jong (Student Workers of Columbia, Local 2710), Andrew Bergman (Harvard Graduate Students Union, Local 5118), and Toly Rinberg (Harvard Graduate Students Union, Local 5118) – about what their organizing means for militant unionism, democracy, and socialism.

Nevena Pilipović-Wengler: UAWD was catalyzed by the One Member, One Vote (1M1V) campaign. Can you tell us more about UAWD’s beginnings, as well as this campaign’s long-term impact politically, within, and outside of UAWD?

Ron Lare: The amount of sentiment in the UAW for direct elections of the top officers was a big part of what led to the formation of UAWD. This demand dates back at least to the 1980s and the New Directions movement in the UAW. In 2019, top UAW officers were indicted [along with Fiat Chrysler executives] and sent to jail. In the same year, GM workers went on strike. That created more space for activism including for the resurgent 1M1V movement.

However, there’s a piece of history about UAWD that I don’t want to be forgotten. From the U.S. government and prosecutors’ point of view, the indictments were mainly about financial corruption. An important point that I think gets lost is that UAWD said at the beginning, what we want is a special convention of the UAW, which UAW has a provision for in its constitution. And at this special convention, to pass a requirement that there’ll be direct elections of the top officers, entirely without government intervention. There was even UAWD publicity with a meme that said, “member control, not government control.”

Andrew Bergman: Tracing UAWD’s formation and growth, from before 1M1V to the historic win we just had in the IEB elections, shows the way we’ve already reshaped the UAW and built rank-and-file power in such a short time. The fact that we’ve come so far is an enormous testament to our senior UAWD leaders, like Scott Houldieson, Mike Cannon, and Martha Grevatt, who have carried the torch of rank-and-file unionism in the UAW for decades and have drawn on their wealth of experience to guide us. They also connect us to New Directions and the other movements that have come before UAWD, which is an important grounding for newer organizers like me.

UAWD’s formation around 1M1V led to both exciting outcomes and others that deserve interrogation. On the one hand, we used the referendum to develop a real campaign, and we took advantage of that opportunity to build up our national-level organizing efforts. We were able to go out and talk to workers, hand out leaflets, and even begin developing committees at the local level. It let us develop a structure where we otherwise would have none, and you can trace a lot of our election success, and even the ability to form a campaign around the Big Three (General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Stellantis, formerly Chrysler) contract expiration in September, to the organization we built during the 1M1V referendum.

On the other hand, those of us farther on the Left of UAWD were pulled toward the center when we found ourselves campaigning for what I would call a more liberal notion of democracy that centers on elections. Elections are not a very radical way to talk to workers about our material conditions, and we weren’t able to build up a deeper shop-floor organizing base through the referendum or the IEB election. So yes, 1M1V put us on the map and enabled us to grow in an important way. But it didn’t structurally mean that we are now a rank-and-file caucus with organizers at every local taking up the banner of worker-led militancy and rank-and-file unionism.

RL: I think 1M1V was needed to shake up the UAW and assert a kind of control by the rank and file. It inspired thousands of auto workers who felt something shake the earth. And simultaneously, it is neither new nor radical. Every local essentially has one member, one vote for electing its local leadership. UAWD doesn’t have dominant power in a single auto local – and in this context, that represents a staggering challenge.

The left image is a photo of ten people smiling and posing for the camera. The middle person holds a framed poster that reads ‘LABOR NOTES TROUBLEMAKER WARD for UNITE ALL WORKERS FOR DEMOCRACY.’ Three people are holding their fists up in the ‘power’ symbol, seven people are wearing the same red shirt that reads in white lettering, ‘NO Concessions! NO Corruption! NO tiers!’ On the right, a graphic of three hands placing ballots into a box with the UAW logo on it. Each ballot reads ‘1M1V’ and is checked off.
UAWD members and staff received the Labor Notes Troublemaker Award for their One Member, One Vote campaign in 2022, with the campaign’s logo on the right. On the right Photo Credit: Nevena Pilipović-Wengler.

NPW: How has UAWD endeavored to organize rank-and-file workers around concrete material issues?

Toly Rinberg: The 2008 to 2010 automotive industry crisis is still quite fresh. It led to big contract concessions, such as the expansion of tiers – a type of payroll system in which groups of workers doing the exact same job receive different wages and benefits. A base wage in 2007 was roughly $28 per hour, but after these concessions, it dropped to $15 per hour for new workers, while senior workers maintained their high level of pay. This has weakened the UAW and created a division between workers. Today, we have an opportunity to connect governance questions and material needs moving forward.

To give you a sense of this UAWD vision, we can look at the UAWD priority resolutions we attempted to pass on the convention floor at the recent UAW Bargaining Convention. Our top priority was passing a resolution around a cost of living allowance (COLA) [also known as wage adjustment]. After that, we focused on launching a program to create strike preparation committees in Locals, fighting for wall-to-wall recognition in higher education [covering all workers regardless of specific differences such as job classification], rejecting EV tiers, bargaining for contract language to respect picket lines, improving and defining pension plans, and pushing for a shorter work week for the same pay (or “30 for 40”). The wall-to-wall recognition and picket line resolutions passed, which were big. The COLA resolution failed 311 to 191, although successfully organizing to bring it to the floor was a big win. The Administration Caucus blocked the other resolutions from even coming out of committee.

I want to end on what I see as the big fight looming – the transition to electric vehicles. The international community, the federal government, and the automakers are saying that society needs to shift to producing fifty percent of cars as EV by 2030 to avoid the worst harms of climate change. Whether or not we do that in just seven years, we’re already seeing the impacts of the stated goal. Factories are closing, or they are getting retooled in order to create EV, which the companies claim will require thirty percent fewer workers. Workers at the new EV plants are already making less and getting worse benefits. In addition, joint ventures are popping up, where more than one company owns a facility, such as Ford opening a big campus with a South Korean battery company in Tennessee. These companies argue that the joint venture plants are not UAW jobs and thus are being used to weaken the UAW. I think we have a better chance to fight this with our new leadership, but it’s still going to be tough.

AB: At the UAW Constitutional Convention last July, we were able to bring our ‘No Tiers’ resolution out of the leadership-controlled Resolutions Committee and onto the floor, although it ultimately was voted down. But that fueled our confidence and, the next day, we won in committee and overwhelmingly passed our resolution for strike pay to begin on day one, which even the whole Administration Caucus on the floor voted for. While those are both key material issues, none of that involves organizing rank-and-file workers — there aren’t many rank-and-file members sitting in that Convention and, even though these resolutions were passed at local membership meetings across the country, those are rarely well-attended. The Convention delegates are overwhelmingly local leadership and their handpicked sidekicks.

So Convention organizing has mostly resulted in pulling fence-sitting leadership toward us on material issues, which is not unimportant — we met some of the people who have become our most active organizers at the UAW Constitutional Convention. But Convention organizing, along with handing out leaflets to vote for the Members United slate, is not the same as interfacing with and organizing rank-and-file members around their material issues. As socialists, I think we should ask ourselves: How do we now pivot beyond asking rank-and-file members to vote for things, to encourage them to become leaders who talk about material questions? And I think our current effort to build a rank-and-file-led contract campaign is a big part of that answer.

Ye-Eun Jeong: The fact that we were able to bring these resolutions rooted in concrete material demands to the [convention] floor and catalyze debate was unprecedented. Yet it’s one thing to pass a resolution at a convention, and it’s another thing to try to build support around the demands contained in these resolutions at the membership level and organize around them. As Andrew explained, whether we wanted it or not, this caucus first coalesced around procedural demands like 1M1V. The resolutions mark the beginning of our introducing more militant material demands. But I think we still have a lot to do to both solidify this caucus and transform UAW.

Judy Wraight: In terms of auto, workers are obviously scared because of the potential for their jobs to be moved overseas, as they’ve been told by the Administration Caucus. As for the parts manufacturing plants, there’s a mentality lingering from the years [2002-2010] of [Ron] Gettelfinger as UAW president, where the average compensation, including benefits, seriously went down.

Parts manufacturing plant workers are also getting fucked from the Big Three divestments over the last twenty years, all the parts plants basically went down to $15 an hour, no pension, that kind of thing. The divestments meant they made the parts manufacturing plants into subsidiaries that Ford sold. Essentially, Ford broke up the assembly line workers from each other, which means breaking up the workers’ bargaining power. And they really haven’t come up from that.

Everyone in the plant feels they understand the economy—how it affects auto and why these cuts happen. The local union leadership thinks they are saving jobs with concessions because the economy “demands it.” The questions for UAWD organizers are, can they find local candidates running to eliminate the two-tier system of wages and benefits and get COLA? Or call for transitional ideas? To address material issues, there will only be a successful national UAWD presence if there are successful local ones.

A photo of a large meeting in a large convention room. Many rows of seated individuals face a stage that has speakers and a panel. The platform is backed by large lighted screens showing various photos of UAW strikes. The main screen reads ‘BUILDING OUR TOMORROW TODAY’ and shows the UAW logo. Other screens show live filming of the person speaking at a platform on the stage. Various flags adorn the room’s ceiling, indicating the region of that part of the room. The flags legible in the photo read, REGION 9, REGION 9A, and REGION 4. Most of the people in the photo are wearing red shirts.
UAWD organized to pass priority resolutions around COLA, strike preparation committees, rejecting electric vehicle tiers, wall-to-wall recognition in higher ed, and more at the recent UAW Bargaining Convention. Photo Credit: Andrew Bergman.

NPW: An overarching argument I’ve observed made by UAWD is that more democratic structures lead to more militant organizing and transformative wins for workers. How have you extended UAWD support, or vision, within your Local or Region to radicalize the union as a whole and build rank-and-file structures?

YJ: In some way, if you are an organizer coming from higher ed, joining UAWD won’t require much revision to your politics. Many of the demands which UAWD officially champions are ones that a higher ed organizer with liberal tendencies can easily subscribe to. As a result, being a member of UAWD from higher ed doesn’t necessarily mean that your organizing stems from any materialist analysis of our society and from an understanding of the role that a labor movement has to play within it. So it was interesting to experience a wider space and meet long-term organizers like Ron and Judy who have tried to reform their locals in auto. I think higher ed workers from my local would really benefit from participating in these larger spaces and meeting reform organizers from other sectors with somewhat different politics.

On the other hand, I think UAWD still lacks a lot of capacity and presence at the local level. Region 9A will launch a regional space called the “Rank-and-File Assembly” (RFA), the first-ever regional space officially led by rank-and-file workers, where rank-and-file workers will be empowered to start initiatives and campaigns backed by regional resources. Personally, at my local – Student Workers of Columbia – we’ve been grappling with the question of how not to lose sight of our militancy in between contract negotiation periods. I think part of what makes people engaged and excited is to make them feel part of a movement bigger than themselves, which is something somewhat harder to convey during contract implementation periods. I’m very much looking forward to making people realize that their organizing in their local can be continuous with other locals’ and sectors’ struggles, by commonly organizing through spaces like the RFA and UAWD.

AB: As Ye-Eun said, Region 9A is mostly higher ed — and it’s the most developed UAWD regional space. It’s the only one that has regular meetings within UAWD. We have at least 25 people from locals across the region coming to our biweekly UAWD 9A meetings, where we develop strategies for building up our rank-and-file movement within the region. Our regional director, Brandon Mancilla, is there with us at every meeting, but not as chair. Rather, he situates himself as an organizer who engages in debate in a space facilitated by the four Region 9A UAWD co-chairs. He answers questions and shares a vision for what comes next, and then we actually deliberate and vote on our collective strategy. I think having that relationship with an elected leader in the caucus is incredibly uncommon, and it’s a testament to Brandon’s commitment to continuing to build a movement, not just make reforms from above. Having a collective space at the regional level challenges us on how to make our spaces more democratic and situated more around material issues. Shawn Fain showed up to the bargaining convention and announced to us, and to the press, “I’m proud to be a UAWD member.” Even when there are tensions within UAWD, leadership embraces that they’re making decisions with rank-and-file members, not just issuing directives to our caucus.

TR: As Ye-Eun said, one of the experiments in the democratic structure that UAWD 9A has really focused on is launching a Region 9A RFA. I’m excited about this, especially as a socialist, because we’re talking about creating an open space for all of the regional UAW members to come together and collectively prioritize campaigns and decide on resource allocations. This marks a massive departure from how UAW has made decisions historically. A top-down structure is baked into UAW’s constitution and governance. Regional directors have a great ability to independently, and without transparency, dictate which local gets resources and staff time. The International Executive Board and the president especially have extensive power to do this. If we want to convert the UAW into a militant union where rank-and-file members are ready to fight for big social and economic changes, I think it will have to happen through spaces attempting to embody much greater democracy and worker self-determination, like this RFA.

JW: The union says that the membership is the highest authority in the union, but I don’t think Americans have any idea what democracy is since we don’t actually vote in a democratic structure regarding action. People don’t realize that the president’s report in the union meeting is an opportunity to bring a motion, for example, to proceed with a particular grievance, meaning the membership can vote to decide that the union file a grievance and to take the grievance step-by-step. They don’t know that they could control what bargaining demands are presented or dropped, because there are few places where people make democratic decisions about strategy in the U.S. This rank-and-file assembly sounds great.

NPW: Returning back to today. UAWD recently recruited, endorsed, and campaigned for the reform UAW slate called ‘Members United.’ Unlike many reform slates, it was run as a UAWD project and all slate members joined UAWD before being endorsed. It surpassed its goals in terms of elections, and concluded in a historic moment of electing reform candidate Shawn Fain as UAW’s president, which was formally confirmed in late March. What tensions and opportunities does UAWD’s engagement with the campaign, as well as Fain’s presidency win, reveal?

JW: ​​There’s a general culture of members hoping that the elected officers look after them. Workers vote the old guy out, vote the new guy in, and hope it’ll get better. It doesn’t, and the cycle repeats. Instead, it’s the membership who can make things better.

For example, there’s the issue of democracy between bargaining committees and membership. ​​When the two tiers [payroll system] was introduced, we [at Local 600] found out about it after the bargaining committee agreed to it and printed what they called the ‘highlights.’ If you’re lucky, you then get two weeks to vote on it, and we had to vote yes or no. Will the Big Three negotiations be different this time? Will the IEB force our bargaining committees to return to members and tell us what’s going on? Will members be able to sit in on the negotiations, which some grad student unions are already doing? Will the UAW and national leadership of Members United believe in the ‘target’ strategy, or, a UAW-wide, or at least Big-Three-wide, strike? In other words, how much will we scare the owning class? How do we bring down the economy? As it’s been said, you’ve got to get their attention with a baseball bat.

Members should get acquainted with these questions and learn that they can influence the national bargaining committee and national strategy. We can introduce these ideas through UAWD’s developing local rank-and-file committees for the Big Three. We already see people coming out of the woodwork at Ford Rouge for these issues.

AB: Unlike many reform slates in other unions, the Members United slate was run as a project of UAWD, and UAWD really ran the national campaign operation. We passed a resolution at a UAWD Membership Meeting creating a Campaign Committee, which consisted of members of the slate, two team members that they each chose, and some members of the UAWD Steering Committee. Our UAWD staff served as staff for the campaign, and the Campaign Committee was the main venue for running the campaign. To be endorsed and become a member of the slate, we had an open endorsement process, to which all UAWD members were invited, culminating in a vote on each candidate by the membership. Any member was welcome to speak for or against any candidate — while there was some debate, there wasn’t a lot of speaking against, and I think a more politically developed organization, with more knowledge of key positions and political disagreements, might have had more contestation there. In our resolution, we also decided that anyone who wanted to be endorsed and become a Members United slate member had to join UAWD; most of them were not UAWD members prior to being endorsed.

A graphic contains a collage of seven portraits, with the name of the individual and a green check mark listed above each portrait. From left to right, the names written of the individuals portrayed are Brandon MANCILLA, Mike BOOTH, Margaret MOCK, Shawn FAIN, Rich BOYER, LaShawn ENGLISH, Daniel VICENTE. Text below the portraits reads CONGRATULATIONS SHAWN FAIN & UAW MEMBERS UNITED! The graphic’s background is a photo of UAW striking workers on the picket line.
UAWD endorsed and ran the campaign for the UAW Members United slate, all of whom won their seats and made history, especially with Shawn Fain elected as UAW President. Photo Credit: Unite All Workers for Democracy.

With Shawn Fain, it could have gone differently. He could have gotten our endorsement and then never spoken with us again — but his continued involvement, including showing up to our quarterly UAWD membership meetings, speaks to his loyalty, honesty, and belief that we can’t simply reshape our union from the top-down without a rank-and-file movement. In particular, Shawn vocally supported and voted for a resolution that some of us brought to our last membership meeting to have a monthly strategy meeting with our elected members on the IEB — this means we’ll get to continue to interface with the people we campaigned to elect, although it doesn’t give the UAWD membership any say over our electeds or create any concrete accountability. But, after some dissent, including from other members of the IEB, the resolution passed with overwhelming support, and I think it marks an important historical moment in how rank-and-file caucuses can function democratically. When people think of other prominent rank-and-file caucuses, they usually think of the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE) within the Chicago Teachers Union, where the President sits as an ex-officio member on the CORE steering committee. Or they think of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and Sean O’Brien, the president of the Teamsters, who was endorsed by TDU and maintains lines of communication, but who isn’t a TDU member. UAWD lies somewhere in between.

Simultaneously, I don’t think the UAWD-endorsed electeds will be at every caucus event or give us updates weekly, and, while we’re keeping open lines of communication, we won’t be seeking permission for caucus campaigns and activities, either. Our caucus membership has made clear that we’re going to maintain political independence — that we’re not going to simply be foot soldiers and do what our elected leadership asks of us. When we support the direction they’re moving, we’ll say that vocally and actively organize to support their vision, but when we don’t support what they’re doing, we’ll let them know we disagree and organize toward different outcomes. I think of this as the difference between a “foot soldier” frame and a “democracy” frame for how a caucus might operate.

And at least from the clear messages we’ve heard at this point from Shawn, I think our electeds understand the “democracy” frame, are excited to still be members of our caucus and a part of our movement, and will ultimately respect our political independence as our rank-and-file caucus grows. They understand that the Administration Caucus is still very strong, keeping a bureaucratic hold on almost every International staff position and elected office at manufacturing Locals, and that only a deeply-organized rank-and-file movement in the UAW can overcome them.

YJ: Yes, one outstanding question to me is how many in our caucus find it really important to hold the IEB accountable and will push for it? I feel like I’m pouring cold water, but even if a few of us are grappling with this question seriously, I’m not sure how many in our caucus are engaging with it. At least for many of the higher ed workers I know, my impression is that they haven’t even thought about this question. I think it comes from a certain kind of dominant liberalism, this idea that once you become the president of the whole union, you need to serve the whole membership, not the caucus; or this idea that these elected leaders are (just like any rank-and-file member) free to choose where they stand politically. But of course, holding these elected leaders accountable to our caucus can’t happen just by relying on leadership’s goodwill. Maybe higher ed workers will naturally start grappling with this question as they start confronting organizers from other sectors, and have their politics be influenced by them.

Now I’m making it sound as if this type of political education that happens in cross-sectoral spaces can go only one way. But as Andrew mentioned, it can go the other way too, because there are certainly other things that higher ed workers do well. A good example is Columbia’s strike: We had fully open and remote bargaining attended on average by ~300 members, weekly general membership meetings where all strategic decisions about the strike had to be discussed and decided, contract proposals that were directly researched and drafted by rank-and-file members, etc. That is definitely the kind of radical democratic practice that higher ed introduced and normalized. Higher ed locals also tend to have greater organizational capacity and be well-connected at the local level (they have communications reaching the whole unit, etc.). So there’s an exciting prospect as UAWD grows and forces organizers from different sectors and experiences to talk and learn from each other through sharing their own strengths and weaknesses.

TR: We can expect a much more militant campaign than we would have under an IEB controlled by the Administration Caucus for two reasons: First, for the simple reason that the Administration Caucus had no plans to prepare for a serious contract campaign, so any increased strike preparation and organizing will already mark improvement. But second, the elected UAWD members actually have an analysis that unions should be fighting for their members and leading with organizing. The new administration’s early moves make me believe they’re serious about this.

The question for me, though, is how much more militant? In my optimistic vision, we can try to join a bottom-up organizing approach with the top-down leadership of these reform candidates, who themselves have a range of political ideologies. But for socialists striving to build class struggle within unions and achieve radical social and economic justice demands, the focus should be a serious strategy for creating rank-and-file caucuses at local and regional levels. While it remains to be seen how democratic this contract campaign is going to be, we need to take this opportunity to create local and regional rank-and-file spaces where we can bring socialist ideas around liberatory politics and material analysis, organize each other and vie for those ideas. If other rank-and-file workers see these spaces as truly decision-making ones, then they are incentivized to join those debates and at least consider all of the political ideas brought forward.

Should we make this upcoming Big Three campaign a fight around the material aspects of EV transition, elimination of tiers, and getting a standard of wage and benefits to a high level, as well as around societal questions of environmental issues, cleaning up our supply chains, and fighting around climate change demands? We’re far from tackling all those questions, but the only way to get there is through the rank and file.

NPW: Can you speak to the tensions and solidarity power in the cross-sector and cross-class membership of auto and higher ed workers?

RL: I think we should drop the term cross-class. When it comes to income, I’ve told higher ed workers that they strike me as white-collar DoorDash and Uber drivers. I know something about what adjuncts make, I was one for many years as a part-time job at the University of Detroit Mercy. Some of the delegates cited how some grad instructors live on a $22K annual pay in places where that’s how much annual rent costs. That’s not to say that there aren’t various tensions. Academic workers often can be extremely helpful and indispensable in various technical ways, and there’s a tendency for them to dominate discussions. Look at the UAWD gathering at the conventions—I don’t think the problem is with the academic workers or that they’re in a different class, I think it’s that we haven’t recruited more auto workers to those meetings. So we have to drop that cross-class term, but keep having the discussion that there is tension, and we don’t want UAWD to be a place where auto workers feel subordinate to academic workers.

YJ: The division between higher ed and auto organizers doesn’t seem to me to be a material one (i.e. whether we are working class or not). Or at least a relevant one. The more important one is a political division, i.e. the question of whether their politics are explicitly driven by the fact of the exploitation (of the working class by the capitalist class).

TR: Auto workers were really interested in our resolution at the Bargaining Convention to build a sectoral strategy for wall-to-wall higher ed unions that don’t carve out big chunks of workers. And they didn’t just want to get it passed, many were engaged in working through it via debate on the floor. After some of the Administration Caucus higher ed folks opposed the resolution, more than fifty auto workers came to an after-hours meeting and asked us [higher ed workers] questions, seeking to make connections between our carve-outs and the tiers and whipsawing that they experience at their plants. And they were ultimately adamant that they wanted to pass the resolution and support our demands. After many of us organized to support our siblings in manufacturing, I think the focus we got at the Convention, and the solidarity so many auto workers showed us, says something about the commitment from both sides to organize together, move beyond what has long been seen as a sectoral class divide, and move toward a vision of a unified working-class UAW membership.

NPW: What can socialists learn about democracy from UAWD’s commitment to democratic governance and membership structure? Its successes, difficulties, and continued learnings? I’m especially curious about what socialists can, and should, learn more from caucus formations.

RL: Socialists can learn about how to be tactical, flexible, and creative in ways to shake up a union and union bureaucracy. It doesn’t have to be under the banner of socialism to give workers more room to breathe and foster a feeling that they can be in control, even if there’s a bit of an illusion to it. Trotsky had a phrase about the progressive side of an illusion. If workers really believe they’re in control, they may make the reality catch up with their aspirations.

I think this movement for democracy with UAWD is a reform to restore the original CIO’s standards. Which doesn’t mean necessarily getting any closer to socialism in what the union is doing. But the early CIO was led by socialists. They were the recognized leaders, the ones leading actions. The Flint sit-down strike [organized by GM workers in 1936-37) would not have happened, I believe, without socialist intervention. I’ve often said that I think unions will be reformed when socialists are running them.

A lot of prejudice exists in union reform circles against saying you’re a socialist because then you won’t get elected. Maybe that’s why Judy and I didn’t get elected more often. But it’s worth more to me to say I’m a socialist and have people know what they’re voting for.

Right now, Judy and I support six active workers for the Local 600 elections. They range in age from their early 20s to early 50s, and they are three women, and three men, four are Black, two are white, one is in trades, and the others are in production. In some ways, that’s an impressive grouping, although not by the standards from earlier decades in the local.

What I mostly do is be available for people, by listening to their grievances and trying to start campaigns. Something I learned about from [a comrade] Peter S. in the early 1970s. Compared to those days, I feel like workers know a lot less about what an organization is. In the U.S. general and political cultures, workers used to get their notions of what an organization is and can be from the unions, but now unions are such a small percentage [11.3 percent of the workforce in 2022, according to the BLS]. Now those notions come from the Democratic Party, churches, and block clubs, not from social democratic models, nor radical ones.

A black and white photo of an autofactory. In the forefront, eight men are sitting in various automobile seats reading newspapers. The seats are placed on the ground and have yet to be installed in the cars. In the background, an assembly line shows 3 vehicles stalled in the process of being made. There is a group of people standing and talking behind the cars. The ceiling is lined with factory lighting.
Sitdown strikers in the Fisher body plant factory number three in Flint, Michigan 1937. Photo Credit: Sheldon Dick.

TR: Rank-and-file caucuses, like UAWD within the UAW, are concrete sites where socialists can push for their principles of materialist demands, liberatory politics, and self-determination—but to realize these ideas require combining them with radical democracy. I think caucuses are a space for that, and like what Ron was saying, it’s a strategy to open up a way to talk about and build commitment around the issues we want to push for. The democratic side of things is very cultural, and takes a lot of care. For example, the UAWD staff and steering committee have both democratic and undemocratic tendencies. In many ways, staff and the SC can make decisions and push the organization in ways without broader input. Some of that is inevitable and makes operations more efficient and expedient, but we should also question when we should really make sure the members are leading even if it means moving slower—that takes building norms and a broader culture around democracy. We have quarterly membership meetings that are run democratically, but increasing the frequency would allow for membership to guide the caucus’ direction more actively. We now have two new committees—organizing and EV—that both operate democratically, but they’re young and haven’t contributed much to UAWD’s direction yet.

The conventions are another interesting example. At the Constitutional Convention, a small group of us pushed for practicing a more democratic culture in how we strategize. Initially, some  UAWD leaders were resistant and wanted to just put forward their vision. But after being pushed to create a democratic process, we were able to collectively amend and vote on the strategy. At the Bargaining Convention less than a year later, it was almost second nature where people were like, of course, we’ll set the strategy democratically. And as a result, we were able to be more effective at these conventions because we built a shared understanding and buy-in going into the convention that got us all to focus our energy, even if some disagreed with the exact priorities.

UAWD could have just come and pushed for an agenda at these conventions, but instead, we were also devoting attention to cultivating a democratic space in which people committed to these bigger reform ideas could come and support or contest them. It’s not socialism by itself, but I think this kind of democratic caucus space is a crucial vehicle for socialists to concretely be able to push for their ideas in a real, material way.

AB: If we’re only talking to other socialists, we’re not going to get very far. So we can ask, what’s the role of the caucus in taking steps to talk to more people? We could imagine that all we do as a caucus is just chat with folks, like a big coalition that all points in the same direction or comes together for certain moments around elections, which is what a few people want. But what’s the role of the more prefigurative sort of democratic qualities that Toly was talking about?

I’ve learned so much about what democracy means from the inside of UAWD. When members demand democratic decision-making, and leaders think about how to take concrete steps to build a clear, democratic process that folks can engage in, I think it can introduce this kind of magical realization, like “oh, we’ll just do democracy here, we can decide as a collective.” And I think it’s an important sort of transitional politics because we’re then able to start bringing these democratic practices out into our actual union spaces, encouraging people to weigh in on not just outcomes but strategy. Sometimes, I think people imagine democracy as a concept, but it has to be materialized. Where do you get to post your question? Where do you get to voice your position? How do you make an amendment to a strategy?

Exercising democracy within the UAWD caucus has trained us in two ways. One, it’s trained us to go back to our Locals and call for democratic deliberations and unions. Two, it’s asked us this important question: How do we build up sites of contestation at all? The caucus can be a wonderful, little democratic collective — but if there’s no place for us to deploy our strategy, then there’s nothing left for us to do. For instance, in Region 9A, our effort to build up this Rank-and-File Assembly as a mass membership space in the Region establishes a site of contestation where we, the UAWD members as a smaller collective, can go organize other members and build up the strike preparation committees we’ve been talking about. It’s important that mass membership space won’t just be for UAWD caucus members; it’s a place where we can bring our ideas and strategy to radicalize other union members and bring them into our rank-and-file political movement.

JW: Another issue of democracy within auto is whether or not people get to vote for the union to take the grievances from the first to second to third step or arbitration. Or even voting to find out what is happening with the grievances. We could vote on who to invite to speak at a meeting, maybe to speak about the “30 hours work for 40 hours pay” resolution, open bargaining, what unions in Europe do, etc. Because right now in Local 600, members don’t go to union meetings because they think there’s no reason for them to be there. The president gives the president’s report, members vote to approve it, and they don’t know they could have a democratic vote to tell the president what to do.

Union members have few examples of democracy. There’s no democracy in the family, the church [faith-based institutions], and the school. You might elect a representative and that’s the extent of it, it’s not democracy of action. I want to add that the purpose of a meeting is to decide on strategy and action. The meeting allows for discussion of different views regarding strategy and action. So that I can understand you better, and you can understand me better.

AB: Ron made a great point that many believe the purpose of a meeting is to just feature both sides of an argument. Then there’s some idea that we’re just going to go vote asynchronously to decide which side wins. This is at odds with what Judy was just putting forward about people actually understanding one another’s ideas. The goal shouldn’t necessarily be to find a compromise, and you do often have to take a vote to decide who wins—we shouldn’t want to compromise on certain radical ideas when they’re being introduced at strategic moments. But if there is a compromise to be sought, meetings are often the place to find it and put it forward as a possible option. There’s this bizarre idea that decision-making should be a head-to-head battle, mediated through a ballot, and that’s the only way to do it. Instead, we need to see meetings as one place where members can relate to one another, organize one another, and ultimately make decisions together as a collective.

YJ: I’m thinking more about my realization that I had been a socialist for a long time before getting involved with labor organizing, and I hadn’t concretely understood what it meant to confront people who aren’t socialists. Obviously, revolution will not happen if you don’t talk to and try to organize non-socialists in the first place. What I learned isn’t so much figuring out how I should stand on concrete issues as a socialist— it’s been fairly obvious that more expansive unit definitions are better than exclusive ones, etc.—but learning how to navigate these tactical and strategic questions of what’s the best approach in trying to pull organizers closer to these more socialist viewpoints.

Re: democracy, I would frankly say that I personally didn’t realize what democracy concretely meant for socialism, before becoming actively engaged in the Student Workers of Columbia strike. One day I just decided to Zoom into a weekly Recognition Working Group meeting, just out of curiosity —people were discussing bargaining strategy discussions there, and I started regularly participating in those meetings. At that time, being ignorant of the state of unions in the U.S., I didn’t realize how significant that was— that there were absolutely zero barriers for a total novice, rank-and-file member like me to start being part of the process of drafting language for a bargaining proposal, and to become an active organizer. More generally, ensuring that our organizing spaces are democratic means that we multiply the possibility for workers to become politically conscious, i.e. learn that they need to organize themselves to win anything in the society we live in. That’s the kind of realization that the Student Workers of Columbia democratic strike organization allowed me to have for the first time. Of course, having democratic spaces doesn’t guarantee that people will actually come to those spaces and take ownership of them; and that’s still a step removed from a commitment to socialism. But without the acquisition of that political consciousness (which isn’t a given these days), we can’t even begin that process of turning people into socialists. Allowing the existence of such possibilities, that’s one way I can see why having a democratic space like UAWD matters from a socialist viewpoint.

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Nevena Pilipović-Wengler View All

Nevena Pilipović-Wengler is a socialist who printmakes, organizes in labor, and aims to dream collectively.