Michael Jackson, a member of the Workers United, the union’s organizing committee, delivers nominating petitions to delegates at an election rally on 29 July 2016 in Detroit. Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Almost 1.5 million votes were cast on Thursday to choose a new president for the United Auto Workers, with one reform candidate, Gary Casteel, narrowly defeating the four old-guard pickees, according to the UAW. The 55-year-old Casteel beat four of the union’s first-generation leaders, who have been accused of being beholden to big corporate employers, in the all-mail balloting. The results overturned a vote in 2012 in which the UAW backed the veteran political leaders over the founding fathers.
The victory makes Casteel the first UAW leader in decades to be elected from outside the caucus system, which excludes long-time senior leaders. His win also comes as the union closes in on striking a labor contract with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, its largest employer, which is the final major hurdle before an official contract ratification vote.
“It’s the biggest business-worker victory since the economy crashed and everyone went into bankruptcy,” Cliff Guffey, who owns a plant in Warren, Michigan, where Casteel worked, told Quartz.
The stakes for the UAW are high: In addition to the looming strike with Fiat Chrysler, it has several other large contracts with labor contractors for factories and service plants that employ more than 200,000 workers and cover some $60 billion in annual wages and benefits. That collection of contracts covers nearly one-fifth of all hourly manufacturing workers in the US.
In the run-up to the election, the election committee that Casteel represents accused the older leaders of injecting themselves into the UAW’s business operations in a bid to run the new UAW into the ground. The UAW’s leadership has been accused of compromising its independence in bargaining with Fiat Chrysler, which last week announced job cuts that could shrink hourly wages for UAW workers by as much as 30 percent over the next four years.
Casteel, a longtime UAW organizer, has questioned the fairness of the union’s selection process. He has also criticized the new leadership for seeking to entrench its power after the last strike.
Those allegations went largely unproven by Thursday’s vote. But the old-school leaders did manage to derail Casteel’s campaign early.
Both sides of the nine-way race endorsed an all-mail presidential election for the first time in the UAW’s history, with the only major exception being the old-guard UAW—the leadership group that was also facing an open election. Casteel’s camp did not mention the presence of challengers during its televised campaign to win the endorsement of the UAW’s national executive board.
That oversight was seen as a major weakness by the reform campaign. A candidate needs to have the endorsement of a majority of the UAW’s 17 regional unions to mount a real campaign for president. A failed attempt by Jackson, another reform candidate, to succeed four-term outgoing president Bob King, would have severely hurt his chances by splitting the support between Casteel and Jackson, according to Chris Rubin, who ran Jackson’s unsuccessful campaign and has been one of the most vocal reformers for at least a decade.
UAW rules require candidates to receive 35 percent of the vote in the nomination and election process to become a UAW president. “The rule should have been reversed, but it’s set in stone,” Rubin said.