One week until the UAW elections begin: Rank-and-file workers’ power vs. the bureaucracy

In less than one week, nearly one million workers in the United Auto Workers will begin voting in the most significant elections in the UAW’s history.

Ballots will be mailed out to 900,000 active and retired UAW members starting next Monday, October 17. A court-appointed monitor—which is overseeing the UAW’s national elections as a result of a years-long corruption scandal—has stated that completed ballots should be placed in the mail by Friday, November 18, in order to be received by the final deadline, November 28.

Among the candidates for president of the UAW, it has become ever-clearer that there is only one advancing a program representing the needs of rank-and-file workers: Will Lehman, a socialist and second-tier worker at the Mack Trucks plant in Macungie, Pennsylvania. The World Socialist Web Site has endorsed Lehman for UAW president and calls for the largest possible vote for him by UAW members in the weeks ahead.

Lehman has placed the fight for rank-and-file power at the center of his campaign. Encouraging and assisting workers to form a network of rank-and-file factory committees, he is spearheading a mass movement to end the dictatorship of the UAW bureaucracy and transfer control over all decision-making in the workplace to rank-and-file workers.

Lehman’s campaign is powerfully resonating with a growing mood of rebellion and militancy in the working class, particularly among the ever-widening numbers of low-paid temporary and “supplemental” employees. Wherever Lehman and his supporters have visited, whether factories or warehouses in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky or elsewhere, they have encountered disgust with the corrupt UAW bureaucracy and support for the demand to place power in the hands of rank-and-file workers.

Significantly, Lehman’s internationalism and his call to unite workers in different countries in a common struggle is serving as a particular point of attraction. “At my plant the UAW bureaucrats tell us we need to compete with GM workers outside the US to keep our jobs,” a temporary part-time worker at GM Flint told the WSWS in recent days. “We all build the same trucks, and GM employs workers all over the world, so why should we have our struggle limited only to the US or Mexico or behind any other border? I support Will’s campaign because it is for uniting with other workers not only in the US but across these borders with our sister plants in Silao [Mexico] and Oshawa [Canada].”

If the UAW bureaucrats at “Solidarity House” had gotten their way, workers would not even be able to vote for the national leadership of the union. The only reason direct elections for UAW president and other executive board positions are taking place is because of the sprawling UAW corruption scandal, which revealed that many of the union’s top officials were either accepting corporate bribes or embezzling workers’ dues. In a court-mandated referendum last year on whether to implement direct elections, workers overwhelmingly voted in favor of “one member, one vote” for the union’s top positions.

Confronted with an election it did not want, the UAW apparatus is now hoping to suppress voter turnout as much as possible. Autoworkers have told the WSWS that they are being systematically kept in the dark, with many of their coworkers not even knowing that an election is taking place.

The virtual information blackout on the UAW elections extends to the corporate media. The New York Times and other national news organizations have remained silent on the elections for months. In the case of the Times, this is despite the fact that its former chief labor correspondent, Steven Greenhouse, served as the moderator for debates among the UAW candidates last month. Meanwhile, news outlets in Detroit, the center of the US auto industry, have published only infrequent, perfunctory reports.

The silence in the media on the UAW elections reflects deep-seated nervousness over Lehman’s campaign and hostility towards it. The UAW apparatus and its partners in the corporate-political establishment view Lehman as a “socialist interloper” in the elections that the ruling class had hoped to confine to representatives and defenders of the union bureaucracy.

Working in tandem with the UAW-media blackout are supposedly “left” organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America and the closely connected group Labor Notes. Both are supporting a longtime UAW bureaucrat, Shawn Fain, and the “UAW Members United” slate in the elections. But the DSA-affiliated Jacobin and In These Times magazines, as well as Labor Notes, have remained almost entirely silent about the UAW elections.

While claiming to be socialist, these organizations in fact represent affluent layers of the upper-middle class, including no small number of highly paid union officials. They are bitterly hostile to Lehman’s campaign because their material interests and sympathies are entirely with the union bureaucracy he is seeking to abolish. But they can hardly even promote their own candidate, Fain, because in doing so they would be compelled to acknowledge the existence of Lehman, the rank-and-file alternative and genuine socialist.

What terrifies the ruling class more than anything else is that Lehman’s campaign is exploding the myth that workers in America are hostile to socialism. The growing support Lehman is receiving in every part of the country is living proof that the working class is not afraid of socialism and is increasingly drawn to it.

In countless speeches and discussions with workers throughout his campaign, Lehman has explained socialism and the division of society into irreconcilable classes in clear and compelling terms. “What every worker needs to understand watching this is that we are the ones generating all the profit,” he said during the UAW presidential candidates’ debate. “Everyone else is just a parasite on that profit. All the bureaucrats, all the companies. We don’t need them. They need us. We are the ones in the factories, the nurses in the hospitals, the teachers in the schools, we are the ones that keep society moving. It is not the owners. It’s us, the working class, and we should be able to decide how we distribute that profit.”

Lehman’s campaign marks a new stage in the development of the class struggle. After decades in which the union bureaucracies have integrated themselves into the structures of corporate management, their ability to suppress workers’ resistance is breaking down in industry after industry and country after country.

Under conditions of escalating war, surging inflation, and a looming recession and attacks on jobs, workers are seeking to halt and reverse the relentless concessions in wages and working conditions which have been forced on them. Since early 2021, this rebellion has taken the form of a series of massive “no” votes rejecting sellout contracts backed by the union bureaucracies, from Volvo Trucks and John Deere, to auto parts makers Dana and Ventra.

This process is by no means confined to autoworkers. The efforts of union executives in the rail industry to impose the demands of the corporations, with the assistance of the Biden administration and Congress, have provoked widespread outrage among rail workers. On Monday, maintenance of way workers in the third-largest rail union, the BMWED, voted down a deal backed by the union and the White House.

Lehman’s campaign gives conscious expression to a rebellion which is already underway, and it is intersecting with the profound, instinctive striving of the working class for unity.  

But as Lehman explained in an email to UAW members, “The situation will not change unless we act. As workers, we have tremendous strength, but nobody is going to fight for what we need but ourselves. This is the purpose of my campaign, but I am not a miracle worker. You must make the decision to take up this fight.”

Lehman has called for autoworkers and other UAW members to form rank-and-file election committees to overcome any attempt by the UAW bureaucracy to depress voter turnout and keep the elections confined to the apparatus. Such committees, he said, will serve to inform workers about the UAW elections and how to vote; distribute information about Lehman’s campaign in the plants; organize meetings and informational pickets to discuss the issues in the elections; and lay the foundation for the network of rank-and-file committees needed to continue the fight once the elections are over.

Lehman’s campaign deserves the active support of all those, whether in the UAW or outside it, who agree: Power must be in the hands of rank-and-file workers! To learn more about the campaign and get involved, visit WillForUAWPresident.org.