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United Auto Workers convention breaks tradition at key time in union's history

2018 UAW convention
UAW
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Delegates applaud at 2018 constitutional convention of the United Auto Workers union

Delegates from across the country have gathered in Detroit for the 38th United Auto Workers union convention.

For the first time in at least 70 years, delegates will not choose the union's next leadership. Instead they'll nominate candidates for rank and file members to vote on in the fall.

The change is one of many forced by a consent agreement with the federal government over the ongoing corruption scandal at the union, which has so far sent a number of former UAW leaders to prison, including two former presidents, for enriching themselves at membership's expense.

The UAW also agreed to the appointment of a federal monitor, who released a scathing report on July 19th about the current leadership's lack of transparency and violations of the consent agreement, including failing to notify the monitor of an internal investigation of another union leader accused of graft.

The UAW counts its membership at more than 400,000 people

Harley Shaiken is a labor expert with the University of California, Berkeley. He said he expects many delegates will have read that report, and that candidates will need to address the corruption issue openly during the convention.

He also said there is another issue they'll need to address as part of their pitch to be nominated: the seismic shift in the auto industry, from producing labor-intensive cars on the assembly line with combustion engines to electric cars which have far fewer parts and require far less labor to build.

"We're moving very rapidly towards an all-electric industry that has major impact for workers and employment," Shaiken said.

Erik Gordon, an assistant professor with the Ross Business School at the University of Michigan, said the corruption scandal certainly still reverberates deeply among many in the rank and file, but it remains to be seen what kind of candidates will be on the ballot — current President Ray Curry says he intends to run — and what happens during the election.

"Even with all of the things rank and file found out about what leaders did with their money, the big question will be, how many are ready to make a real change," he said.

Another departure from tradition during this convention: reporters won't be allowed on the convention floor. They'll watch from a media room onsite, which could make it more difficult to gain interviews with individual delegates.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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