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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As the UAW scores wins in red states, tensions emerge over Gaza protests

Students walk past the pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, May 9, 2024. (Rachel Wisniewski/The New York Times)

By Jonathan Weisman

The United Auto Workers has scored a remarkable string of victories — most recently, a landmark contract on Monday for electric vehicle battery workers — as its new leadership strives to restore the union’s image as the voice of an iconic segment of the American working class.

But competing for headlines is a part of the union that represents tens of thousands of university workers, which at the moment is singularly focused on a mission far from building cars and trucks: ending the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

UAW leaders insist that they can smooth out the dissonance between the dual thrusts of UAW activism — one on college campuses, the other on red-state assembly lines. But it will not be easy. The UAW signs that are crowding pro-Palestinian encampments on campuses, furnished by the union’s international headquarters in Detroit, have alone struck sour notes among some union members uncomfortable with such outward signs of politics on such a fraught topic.

“It’s so bad for the union,” said Isaac Altman, a UAW member and staff lawyer in the family court bureau of the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, New York, who has clashed with his local over a pro-Palestine resolution he called “slightly more radical than Hezbollah.” (The resolution called for an immediate cease-fire and an end to “the occupation and blockade of Palestinian land, sea and air by Israeli military forces.”)

The competition for attention may only get worse. On Monday, union negotiators reached a tentative agreement with General Motors that could prove to be a landmark in the auto industry’s transition to electric vehicles. It would give huge wage increases and far more safety protections to employees at an EV battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio, solid evidence that President Joe Biden’s efforts to combat climate change could fulfill his promise that a green future will not leave workers behind.

“It’s a huge deal,” said Dave Green, the regional director of the UAW in Ohio and Indiana. “We’ve been trying to have a just transition and stop this race to the bottom for wages for EV workers. This contract is very exciting.”

At the same time that the contract emerged, the University of California was suing a UAW local in the Golden State that represents 48,000 teaching assistants for striking over pro-Palestinian protests, a less-than-ideal image, union officials say, as the new UAW president, Shawn Fain, tries to organize politically conservative blue-collar workers.

University union members, now back to work, received strike pay — $500 a week — and other support from UAW headquarters from the moment that University of California, Santa Cruz, graduate students walked off the job on May 20, no different from the autoworkers who manned the picket lines in Michigan, Missouri and Ohio last fall.

The union’s blue-collar leadership was not exactly brought kicking and screaming to the Gaza protests. Its higher-education locals pressed the national leadership to get involved, but when, in December, the UAW became the first major union to demand a cease-fire in Gaza, the board vote was unanimous.

Asked about the turmoil at California and New York union locals over Gaza, Green, who represents the UAW in the Republican states of Ohio and Indiana, answered with a curt “no comment.”

Without question, under Fain’s muscular leadership, the UAW has made strides toward reconnecting with the working class, a plus for Biden, whom the union has endorsed. A six-week wave of strikes against the three Detroit automakers last fall yielded the biggest pay raises for autoworkers in decades. An eleventh-hour deal at the edge of a strike in April against Daimler Truck in North Carolina gave workers 25% raises.

Just days later, workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted overwhelmingly to join the UAW, a breakthrough as the union pushes to organize foreign automakers — especially electric vehicle plants — in the union-hostile Southeast.

It has not all been smooth sailing: Last month, workers at two Mercedes-Benz factories in Alabama voted against UAW representation. On Monday, a court-appointed monitor watching the union for corruption accused Fain and the new leaders of obstructing attempts to access information in violation of a 2020 consent decree reached by the leaders whom Fain ousted to avoid a Justice Department takeover of the union.

The tentative contract reached this week at Ultium Cells, an EV battery joint venture in the shadow of a shuttered auto plant in northeast Ohio that former President Donald Trump promised but failed to save, was meant to get the union back on a positive track. It includes 30% raises over three years for most workers, 112% raises for the lowest paid, $3,000 bonuses upon ratification and new positions for health and safety workers.

But just like Biden, Fain also has to placate pro-Palestinian activists, who are a legacy of past UAW leadership that set out over the last decade to increase flagging membership by organizing teaching assistants and other employees of higher education, especially on the politically active West and Northeast coasts. For the UAW, the biggest success came in the last seven years, when tens of thousands of teaching assistants and other workers at the University of California, the University of Washington, the University of Connecticut, New York University and Harvard University voted to join the auto union. More than one-quarter of the union’s 391,000 members now work for universities.

“We have set out to rebuild this union and turn it into a fighting union, one that fights for union-organizing but also for humanity as a whole,” said Brandon Mancilla, a UAW board member who came to the union through organizing Harvard graduate students and has been instrumental in its stand on Gaza. “Of course, when you take on as ambitious and broad a mission as this, you’re going to have issues that a lot of the mainstream don’t see as central to traditional unions.”

UAW leaders sought in interviews to tie together the union’s blue-collar successes, its resurgent political activism on Gaza and the new clash with its federal monitor. An old-line labor union, they said, is ruffling a lot of feathers.

“We encourage the monitor to investigate whatever claims are brought to their office, because we know what they’ll find: a UAW leadership committed to serving the membership and running a democratic union,” Fain said.

Fain reasoned that taking a position on the issue was in line with the activism of the union’s longtime president Walter Reuther against the Vietnam War and in support of civil rights, as well as with the UAW’s stand against apartheid in South Africa.

“Everything we’re doing is about us as workers having greater control over working conditions,” said Rafael Jaime, the president of UAW Local 4811 in California and a doctoral student in English at the University of California, Los Angeles. He cited pay, health care and safety, “but also a say in how we engage in protests on campus,” adding, “We want to have a voice.”

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