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Reformers win tough election battles in UAW Local 594
"It's time to flex our muscles"

By Lee Sustar | June 7, 2002 | Page 11

UNITED AUTO Workers (UAW) officials preparing for this week's union convention in Las Vegas were shocked when activists opposed to concessions won top spots in two important locals.

Longtime union activist Gene Austin captured the powerful shop committee chair position in Local 594, which represents workers at the General Motors (GM) truck assembly plant in Pontiac, Mich. Austin, who had been a committeeman, has been fighting to change the direction of Local 594 since 1997, when a three-month strike was settled with little gains for the members but led to allegations that local union leaders made a corrupt deal to settle the strike.

His election followed the victory by a reform slate that includes President Suzanne Brown and Financial Secretary Jan Austin, who is married to Gene. The two are active in the UAW Solidarity Coalition, which organized to support the locked-out members of UAW Local 2036 who were recently abandoned by the UAW.

Brown ousted incumbent president Larry Trandell--who narrowly defeated Gene Austin in a 1999 election--while reformers captured control of the executive board. GM responded by making Local 594 the last local in the UAW without a local contract in 1999--and putting the plant first in line for layoffs when the recession hit.

Trandell and incumbent shop committee chair Bill King are allies of UAW President Steve Yokich's ruling Administrative Caucus, which--along with GM--went all out to defeat Gene Austin. After laying off the third shift last year, management called the workers back the day before the election and credited King and Trandell for the recall.

"Management knows I am their worst nightmare," Austin told Socialist Worker. As the union's full-time representative on the shop floor, the shop committee chair holds the most powerful position in the local.

The 200 full-time appointed union reps in Local 594 campaigned for incumbent King. "What I would like to do is make as many of these positions elected as possible," Austin said. "It takes the [Administrative Caucus] army away and gives the power to the membership."

Austin also plans to withdraw from UAW-GM "jointness," or partnership programs. That alone would be enough to set off alarms at the UAW's Solidarity House headquarters.

But a pending lawsuit filed by Austin and other Local 594 members alleges that a secret deal to settle the 1997 strike led to GM hiring Jason Beardsley, son of James Beardsley, an administrative assistant to UAW President Steve Yokich, and David Shoemaker, son of UAW Vice President Richard Shoemaker.

The same week that Austin was elected, another oppositionist, Mike Middleton, won the equivalent post in Local 651, which represents auto-parts plants in Flint, Mich. This is the same local that led the historic 1936 sit-down strike. It was one of two locals that struck in 1998 to shut down GM's North American production.

The plant, now owned by GM's parts-making spinoff, Delphi, agreed to a lower-tier wage in order to win a contract to produce the Segway scooter. Middleton campaigned against making concessions. "There are supposed to be 5,000 jobs there. They told us if we would give them the two-tier wages, they would give us 1,000 jobs," he told reporters. "We got 14. They are just treating our membership…with no respect."

The votes in Locals 594 and 651 won't have much impact on union elections at the UAW constitutional convention in Las Vegas. But they send a message that many UAW members want the union to stand up to employers.

"This union has become nothing more than a policeman for management," Austin said. "The UAW is buying time, but the corporations have an aging workforce. They hope they can downsize and end the union as we know it. But we are still strong, we are just afraid to flex our muscles."

Gene Austin will join former Local 2036 President Billy Robinson and UAW Local 22 activist John Martinez in a meeting, "The Fight to Save the UAW," at Socialism 2002, Sunday, June 16, at 10 a.m. at the Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago. For more information, go to socialism2002.org.

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