Guest Essay: Why you should pay attention to the United Auto Workers presidential election

The union that organizes NYU’s graduate student workers and adjunct professors is up for a presidential election, and for the first time ever, they can cast their vote for a socialist autoworker.


Samson Tu

File photo: Strikers affiliated with the United Auto Workers hold a protest at Washington Square Park in early 2022. (Samson Tu for WSN)

Karsten Stoeber, Guest Contributor

Since Monday, Sept. 26, part-time and adjunct instructors at NYU who are unionized in the ACT-UAW Local 7902 are voting on taking strike action. As the largest and fastest growing faculty group at NYU, members are paid poverty wages and have no job security. At the University of California, a contract for 48,000 academic workers who are also organized in the United Auto Workers is set to expire on Sept. 30

The struggles of these academic workers are developing as the UAW is holding — for the first time in its history — a presidential election in which rank-and-file members can directly vote for their preferred candidate. For the first time in the union’s history, a socialist autoworker, 34-year-old Will Lehman, is also running as a candidate.

It is important to understand why this election is taking place. In 2014, a massive corruption scandal exposed the systematic theft of dues by the UAW leadership. At least a dozen top UAW officials were found guilty of embezzling millions of dollars in union funds and taking bribes from auto companies. Around $1.5 million was given to union leaders in exchange for imposing sell-out contracts on its membership between 2008 and 2015, court documents show.

Union officials spent this money on luxury dinners, villa rentals, golf outings and other personal expenses. A federal monitor, charged with overseeing the union’s operation, called for a direct election to restore the credibility of the union.

But the corruption of the UAW leadership was not simply an aberration. In fact, since the late 1970s, the UAW — tying itself ever-more closely with corporate management and the federal government — has facilitated the immiseration of millions of workers: overseeing plant closures, wage cuts and attacks on workers’ benefits.

Students and staff at NYU are familiar with the treachery of the UAW. Last year, the UAW isolated and betrayed the strike of NYU graduate student workers. The union starved student workers on $275 weekly strike pay, and accepted a six-year contract with a no-strike clause, an hourly wage well below a living wage, 3% annual pay raises and inadequate money for health care expenses. With inflation between 8% and 9%, the agreement has imposed a huge pay cut on graduate workers. The UAW similarly betrayed and isolated the graduate workers’ strike at Columbia, which was happening at the same time. 

 The UAW is only the most glaring illustration of the corporatist degeneration of the trade unions.  In all industries, the union bureaucracies have worked for decades to enforce pro-company sellouts and suppress the class struggle. As a result, union membership in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has plummeted from 36% of the international workforce in 1990 to 18% in 2016. The overwhelming majority of labor actions are now organized independently from unions. 

Young people today confront a society in an unprecedented crisis. The cost of living is soaring, the possibility of a nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States is public knowledge, a global pandemic continues to kill and debilitate millions, the present threat of fascism is very real, and environmental degradation is reaching new heights. Many workers and young people are looking for a way to fight and are turning to socialism. 

But there is little understanding of what socialism actually is. I am the president of the International Youth and Students for Social Equality at NYU, a socialist club on campus. We insist that students can only wage a struggle for socialism if they are oriented to the working class as the revolutionary force in society, and ground their struggle in the lessons of history. We also insist that the struggle for socialism must be waged in opposition to the pro-capitalist Democratic Party and the nationalist union bureaucracies that stifle the struggles of workers. 

This is why IYSSE at NYU has endorsed Lehman’s campaign for UAW president. His campaign is bringing a socialist and internationalist program not only to workers in the UAW, but to the entire working class and young people. As he explained in a debate with acting president Ray Curry and other UAW bureaucrats, Lehman is running not to become a new bureaucrat, but to abolish the bureaucracy and bring the power to the rank-and-file workers. He advocates for the formation of rank-and-file committees to unite the struggles of workers across industries and countries, and prevent their isolation and betrayal by the union bureaucracy. 

This Saturday, Oct. 1 at 1 p.m., our club is co-hosting a live meeting with Lehman specifically addressed to university employees. I urge everyone who wants to support the struggles of the working class and fight for socialism to attend this meeting, support his campaign and join the IYSSE at NYU.

Karsten Stoeber is the president of the International Youth and Students for Social Equality at NYU.

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. The views presented in the Opinion section are solely the views of the writer.

Contact Karsten Stoeber at [email protected].