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Crossroads for the UAW

Workers are voting today at a Nissan vehicle assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi whether to join the United Auto Workers union. That might not seem like a huge deal either way.

After all, it’s just one plant. But it is a big one, with more than six thousand workers, about three-fifths of whom are African-American. If the UAW wins, it will be the dwindling union’s first victory ever in a major foreign-owned “transplant” factory.

Most labor experts believe that organizing transplants is key to the dwindling union’s long-term survival.

The United Auto Workers union hit its peak in the 1970s, not long after the tragic death of Walter Reuther, the visionary and incorruptible leader who built the union and fought to give its workers access to a middle-class lifestyle. The UAW had more than a million and a half members then. Today, it’s less than 400,000, and a lot more retirees.

About a third of the members aren’t in the automotive industry at all, but in areas like casino gambling and health care.

Dennis Williams is now the union’s leader. His predecessor, Bob King, made organizing the transplants his main goal. He utterly failed, losing a drive at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee three years ago even though the company appeared to support the union.

There have been other failures since, and one tiny success, when a small group of less than 200 skilled trade workers in Tennessee voted to join the union.

So today’s vote is crucial. If the UAW loses again, it may be due to a shocking case of corruption that broke barely a week ago. The FBI says there was a “disturbing criminal collaboration that was ongoing for years between high-ranking officials of (Chrysler) and the UAW.”

Prosecutors and a federal grand jury said a former union vice-president, the oddly named General Holiefield, and a Fiat Chrysler executive named Al Iacobelli, diverted millions of company funds for their own private use.

The money was supposed to be used for worker training. Holiefield died two years ago of cancer, but his girlfriend and later wife, Monica Morgan, was allegedly in on the scheme. She and Iacobelli, who later went to work for General Motors, have been charged with multiple counts of criminal activity, including conspiracy and fraud.

Holiefield was black. The tactic conservatives have used when the UAW has tried to organize southern plants has been to argue, none too subtly, that the union would turn their communities into Detroit.

That is totally unfair, but it’s worked. Corruption would never have been tolerated in Reuther’s UAW, which even its enemies acknowledged was one of the cleanest unions in history.

But now it clearly needs to change – especially if the union loses today, and perhaps even if they win. I’ve felt that their best hope would be to turn to someone like Cindy Estrada. She is young, educated, tough, and would be the first Latina to lead the UAW. But last year her husband suddenly died of a heart attack, and she is now a single parent of twin boys entering their teens. Whether she is now in a position to lead is uncertain, but what is clear is that this union vitally needs effective and visionary leadership.

Otherwise, irrelevancy is just a matter of time.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said if Cindy Estrada were elected to lead the UAW, she would be the first Latina to lead any major union. That distinction, however, goes to NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia.

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