The United Auto Workers (UAW) union held its quadrennial bargaining convention in Detroit after a contentious election saw the International Executive Board split into various factions for the first time in over 70 years. Signs of the election’s divisiveness remained evident as representatives from the Unite All Workers for Democracy caucus were booed and some of the group’s resolutions were voted down. However, union leaders attempted to project unity, even those from rival factions, emphasising the importance of putting greater pressure on the Detroit 3 automakers. UAW Vice President Chuck Browning said it was a “window of great opportunity” and called for better wages and benefits for autoworkers. He was weary of reading about divisions within the union, suggesting “we’re united.” UAW President Shawn Fain also emphasised that he was focused on job security and the elimination of different pay tiers, stating that idling and closing of plants is a major issue. The UAW and Canadian union Unifor pledged to work together amid concurrent contract talks with the Detroit 3 for the first time since 1999. President of Unifor, Lana Payne, spoke of what the two unions could achieve together, stating they have a “unique opportunity” to develop “big and bold” bargaining strategies.
The UAW bargaining conventions tend to have a mix of procedural moves that determine the union’s priorities while leaders give rousing speeches. This year’s event was no exception, with Fain stating, “We’re here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against the one and only true enemy – multibillion-dollar corporations and employers who refuse to give our members their fair share” and emphasising the importance of an aggressive tone towards the Detroit 3 automakers. In his campaign, Fain had also conveyed the message that the “fighting UAW is back”, which he reiterated at the convention.
Despite attempts at unity, the cracks in the UAW’s infrastructure remained visible. Factionalism and infighting have been at the forefront of union affairs for some time. The UAW has been plagued by scandal over the past few years, with executives being sentenced to prison for charges including bribery and embezzlement. The Detroit 3 automakers are also in the process of shifting production to electric vehicles, which could lead to thousands of jobs being at risk. Bargaining contracts could determine whether autoworkers retain their jobs and are offered a fair wage.
In conclusion, while both the UAW and Unifor have pledged to work together and have put on a united front in face of challenges, undercurrents continue to persist. While the focus is on better wages and benefits for autoworkers, it remains unclear to what extent the different factions under the UAW will be able to work together for that goal. Additionally, the rise of electric vehicles poses not only an existential threat to the Detroit 3 automakers but also forces the automakers to reconsider their workforce and whether they can remain competitive. Amidst all of this, both unions have asserted that they have a vital role to play in ensuring autoworkers receive a fair deal.
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