UAW members and union leaders in western Massachusetts said that the election is a symptom of a growing militancy in the labor movement nationwide.
By Dusty Christensen
When 54-year-old electrician Shawn Fain claimed victory Saturday in the election to become the next president of the United Auto Workers union, he vowed to do away with a “top-down, company union philosophy” that is unwilling to confront management and take a more aggressive approach with employers.
The election of an insurgent candidate to the leadership of the country’s most powerful unions sent shockwaves across the labor movement, from the UAW’s base in Detroit to western Massachusetts, where the UAW represents thousands of those rank-and-file workers Fain is hoping to inspire.
In interviews with The Shoestring, UAW members and union leaders in western Massachusetts said that the election is a symptom of a growing militancy in the labor movement nationwide. On the local level, Fain’s victory could empower workers to be more confrontational with bosses and increase opportunities for more workers to organize against injustice, they said.
“There’s going to be a lot more allies and resources that are kind of opened up by a change in leadership,” said Patrick Burke, the president of UAW Local 2322, which boasts more than 4,000 members, mostly in western Massachusetts but also Vermont and New Hampshire. “We really want to put the employers that we have to deal with on notice that we’re moving as one working-class led organization that’s not going to put up with all the condescension and gaslighting and abuse of workers.”
The election of Fain and his allies across the union’s executive board marked the first time that all members of the UAW were able to directly vote to elect their leaders. The union’s members won that right in a 2021 “one member one vote” referendum — the result of a consent decree between the UAW and federal prosecutors after a massive corruption scandal swept the union’s leadership. Top UAW officials were found guilty of embezzling funds and even taking bribes from an employer in exchange for contract concessions.
The result has been the sweeping out of leadership from the “Administration Caucus,” which has run the union for decades. And together with a similar election in November 2021 of a reformer to the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, it marks yet another sign of increased militancy in the U.S. labor movement.
“We’re seeing movements for rank-and-file democracy and militancy surfacing and emerging in the labor movement, and I think that’s really powerful and important,” said Barbara Madeloni, an education coordinator with the radical grassroots organization Labor Notes. She said that demand has swelled for the trainings that Labor Notes puts on to help workers take back their unions and take on the boss. “There’s definitely a different energy out there.”
A former Northampton High School teacher and University of Massachusetts Amherst teacher trainer, Madeloni was herself an insurgent candidate and unapologetic leftist who won a shock election in 2014 to lead the Massachusetts Teachers Association on a rank-and-file-powered platform. The caucus that supported her candidacy, Educators for a Democratic Union, continues to hold power in the MTA, empowering teachers in four districts in eastern Massachusetts to go out on strike despite the fact that it’s illegal for public-sector workers to do so in the state.
Madeloni said that a union’s power ultimately lies in the grassroots. And if the victory of Fain and the “UAW Members United” reform caucus is going to have any tangible impact in western Massachusetts, that will be how it happens, she said.
“You think that you’re elected president and you have this incredible power,” Madeloni said. “But really what you have is the capacity to use the resources of the union to create opportunities for members to be in conversations together so that they can begin to organize to solve their own problems and use collective action to do that.”
Already, it seems like those spaces are opening in the northeast, where UAW Members United Brandon Mancilla was elected in December to lead Region 9A. Mancilla reportedly opened up the region’s regular meeting of union presidents to the entire membership and made it a hybrid meeting
“And, probably most importantly, he advertised it well in advance,” David Pritchard, a UAW Local 2322 union representative and longtime member of the graduate-student union at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told The Shoestring.
Mancilla did not respond to several interview requests for this article.
Himself a member of the rank-and-file Unite All Workers for Democracy movement within the UAW, Pritchard said that for far too long, UAW leaders used staff jobs in the union as a way to build a patronage network. In contrast, he said Mancilla set up a transparent hiring process for recent job openings.
“What I expect is that the stuff that this slate campaigned on will reverberate through the structure of the UAW and change the way people who work in all these different workplaces, how they can and do relate to being in the UAW in general,” Pritchard said. “I really expect things to change.”
Cai Barias, a PhD student in history at UMass Amherst and a co-chair of the UAW Local 2322-affiliated Graduate Employee Organization, echoed those feelings of optimism. She said that locally, the UAW election will have several effects. But most importantly, she said she wants it to inspire workers to become more aggressive.
“I hope this sort of resurgence in rank-and-file organizing, more democratic unionism, encourages people,” she said. “For us, I think a part of the problem is apathy, and I hope this exciting new direction shows people there are possibilities for their own engagement … That they can actually make change within the UAW and within GEO.”
Already, local UAW members are taking bold actions.
On Friday, the staff of Goddard College, in Plainfield, Vermont, who are unionized with Local 2322, went on strike amid contract negotiations. In a press release ahead of the strike, the union said it was looking to win a “modest cost-of-living adjustment” without also having to surrender their right to negotiate on working conditions.
“At issue is the very mission of Goddard College, which is to enable ‘imaginative and responsible action in the world,’” the union said.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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