Live Bait & Ammo #186: Do the Right Thing
The contract contained a poison pill coated in a signing bonus. It slid down easy as a Mickey Finn, but had an aftertaste like regret mixed with foreboding: greasy, squeamish, regurgitative as lizard spit.
The UAW Administration Caucus, better known among high seniority as the Concession
Caucus, bargained to convene after ratification to negotiate two tier wages for new hires. The Con Caucus labeled new hires, “Null class.” Legalese for ‘no-account.’ That’s what provoked nausea — no consent.
I am writing this in January 2021 for a new generation of auto workers who don’t know
the history they are piggy-backing. Who don’t know who hogtied them into this
corkscrew position. It’s all becoming more clear as the federales crack down. But the
news isn’t new. You’ve been getting screwed for a long time.
It’s not a conspiracy. The UAW rank and file put blinders on. Out of sight/out of . . . First,
it was parts suppliers, then Caterpillar, then on and on like a train load of Chessie cats
winking lights out as they boxcar past into the blue. Who knew? Everyone knew, certain
as death, the Big Con was coming.
“Joint funds saved International Reps from the downsizing workers suffered. About a
third of our International Reps now receive salaries from the Big Three filtered through
joint funds. Workers paid the price of that perfidious compromise but the corporations
aren't finished exacting their pound of flesh . . .” [LB&A#20]
Jointness was a separate contract within the contract. A payoff deal for the traitors. The
Cons labeled their political caucus “Administration” because the name conflates the
caucus with management of the UAW. Hence, anyone who opposes or disputes
decisions is automatically dismissed as anti union, not anti concessions or anti two tier.
In 2002 I wrote a motion to appeal the Con Caucus’ decision to negotiate a two tier deal
after ratification because it violated Article 19 Section 4 of the UAW Constitution which
states: “National agreements and supplements thereof shall be ratified by the Local
Unions involved.” [italics added for emphasis]
A contract is a legal document. But legal isn’t worth ink, paper, and broken fingernails if
it isn’t enforced. A Constitution? Nothing but a wish ruffled by fret and strut. The
Constitution, any constitution, is a skeleton, a frame. Make it walk and talk, or crawl into
your shroud, my unretired brothers and sisters.
The appeal required support from local union members. The motion would require
stealth strategy because the Con Caucus, true to character, would slander, libel, and lie.
At my UAW Local we had a monthly union meeting for each of three shifts. A motion
required a cumulative majority of votes from all three meetings. The first meeting was
the graveyard shift: a small morning meeting which availed me a cockcrow opportunity
to game the floor and punk punt a motion.
I put word out on the down-low and got Krontz to second the motion before the Cons in command could rattle their minions. Dennis Krontz was a fire starter. All I did was
scratch the match.
We passed the motion easily. The second shift meeting was 11:30pm the same night.
Just the facts: We organized, commanded the floor early, and passed it again. The
chairperson looked shocked, pounded the gavel, and ruled the motion “Out of order!”—
ex post facto.
“On what grounds?” I asked.
“Because I said so,” she said.
We laughed, but she was serious. At a union meeting, unlike a corporate meeting, the
highest authority is the membership. We flexed our collective bicep. We overruled the
chair . . . ex post prompto.
The motion to appeal was popular among the rank and file. Workers were outraged.
Only Corpos and Cons wanted two tier. The contract was an IED camouflaged in the
same old shit: job security lies. The deal cleaved the union to the bone. Decimation
sped up faster than a sous-chef’s knife.
The first shift convened two days later. The meeting was controlled by Con Caucus
followers who, if they wanted to keep cushy appointments and perks, were required to
vote however the local pea-shooter dictated.
I couldn’t attend the first shift meeting but I heard the Cons were prepared this time.
They showed up prompt and rigid in their company-union-team-polo shirts ready to strip
the union of its last vestige of integrity.
The rank and file were up in arms too. Workers understood that two tier threatened the
union and consequently our future, both at work and in retirement. Solidarity was shit
we understood. It isn’t abstract. It’s a visceral, gut level, heart pounding experience like
a hurricane, an earthquake, a flood. Solidarity is the foundation of the common welfare.
And our common welfare wasn’t cargo, it was the ship itself. Indeed, solidarity is the
instinctual, evolutionary response to disaster, predators, and chaos. When hell breaks
loose solidarity is instinctual.
The person who chaired the meeting wasn’t present at the previous shifts’ meetings. He
portrayed the appeal as an anti union tactic designed to divide the membership. The
standard Administration Caucus con — portray every challenge as anti union.
The Sergeant of Arms, Juanita Cadman, was responsible for counting the show of
hands for each vote at union meetings. Recognized by the chair, she stood up.
She stated that she was present at all the meetings, and that the chair had
mischaracterized the motion. She explained the motion, its context, the vote tallies, and
exactly what happened at the previous union meetings.
Thanks to Juanita the motion passed. I now had Constitutional grounds to challenge the
International UAW, document correspondence, and demand answers.
One question: who is Juanita Cadman?
I recognized Juanita but we didn’t sit at the same lunch table. I was surprised. I asked
her why she stood up and publicly challenged institutional power.
“Because it was the right thing to do,” she said.
I understand, but other people knew the truth. They didn’t stand up. Whatever perks and
benefits you were due are in the dust bin now. Why did you take the risk?
“Because it was the right thing to do,” she said.
I know but I still don’t get why you stood up, Juanita. Other people knew it was the right
thing to do, and they didn’t stand up. Why you?
Now she was peeved. I had made her repeat one too many times. This ninety pound
lady aimed both barrels of her piercing black eyes down the hollow mine shaft of my
cranium and said —with all the gravitas of Ron Carter on bass— “It was the right thing
to do.” Ba-boom ba-boom. She had a voice like the low end of a trombone.
I said to my private self, I need Juanita for a friend.
We all need friends who not only speak truth to power but truth to friends.
There will be times when I am unwise, if not outright wrong, and wrongheaded about my
wrongness. In other words, stubborn to the third power, or more simply, Irish. That’s
when I most need a tap on the shoulder, a friend who isn’t afraid to say, “Time out.”
We were in a battle against a corporate giant and a band of solidarity traitors
determined to hamstring the union and sucker-punch the working class.
I needed help. I was lucky. The rank and file were primed and Lucy Parsons —
personified — was riding shotgun.
After contract negotiations with the Detroit Three in 2003 were ratified —(The Cons had
postponed a hearing on my appeal until it was obsolete. The UAW Public Review Board
is like a deodorizer in an outhouse.)— work life returned to a grumbling routine.
Back in the day the UAW held national elections every year. Union officials were
responsive to the rank and file because they were always running for election. In order
to evade challenge and accountability the Con Caucus instituted fewer elections and
negotiated contracts with longer durations.
By 2004 enthusiasm for the union was at the bottom of a dry gulch. Any cowboy worth
his stirrups would put his hands up and surrender for a cupful of sand and a thimble of
whiskey. Union enthusiasm was that damn, dry gulch, dry.
I was chair of the local union education committee. I enlisted members from every
corner of the plant. I appealed to their intelligence. I said, We are all readers and
leaders. Collect items you think are vital. Articles that inform or provoke discussion on
topics relevant to workers. But not specifically Democrat or Republican, Spartan or
Wolverine. The object is not to train conformity, so much as incite us to think, examine,
analyze, debate, and, what the hell, add a beat so we can dance to it.
We didn’t meet after work. We met on the lunch hour in the cafeteria where bosses
could watch us congregate. We came back from lunch late, en masse, a spectacle of
defiance. We were a force management didn’t know how to reckon or beckon: a pack of
dogs without collars, leashes, or obeisant natures.
Every week we met and shared what we gleaned in our reading. We selected the most
pertinent articles, copied, and stapled them together with a cover page: Uncle Sam
finger pointing, “You Decide.” Our committee had a product like a church key the way it
Once we had the drill down and the distribution chain cranking, I asked each member to
ask one worker from the shift before and the shift after to distribute in their own work
We had an official local UAW education committee functioning as a hand to hand,
member to member, diversified distribution network, organized vertically as well as
horizontally. That is, organized across the whole plant, on all three shifts, in every
direction, every classification and department, skilled and general, male and female,
black and white and brown, and yet to be determined. We had the spectrum covered.
When Delphi declared bankruptcy the education committee proved to be a Work To
Rule Committee with a speed dial. We had an internal combustion network in place, the
official pretense was dropped, and the pedal hit the medal.
We had devised the means to walk the talk.
As the struggle ensued, the target on my back grew piercing hot. My anticipation was
when, not if. Whenever my neck was sore from looking over my shoulder, Juanita would
say, “Isn’t this fun?”
I wasn’t so sure, but I knew Juanita made a difference. She constructed a web site and
provided technical support, but the essence of her contribution was spirit. She gave
everyone, I mean, everyone, a grin. Juanita had a smile that seemed to spring from the
floor like an uppercut. A smile that declared, “We’re winning!” A smile that made the rank
and file feel like sweepstake winners. She put gospel in the song, pepper in the soup,
and incandescent joy in the uprising.
David Cole, an auto industry investor and hack writer, accused me of driving Toyota out
of Michigan because of a protest at the 2006 auto show in Detroit. I was at the Delphi
plant in Lockport, New York that day. Juanita was on the megaphone in front of Cobo
Hall leading Soldiers of Solidarity in chants.
Juanita returned home August 13, 2014. She was 59.
How is it, that the people who blow the biggest holes in our lives are also the people
who leave the most meaning, purpose, and desire to carry on?
This Ammo isn’t a eulogy, it’s an analogy, a comparison between the leadership we
have in the UAW, and the people we could elect, given one member one vote.
Given is a poor choice of words. Justice isn’t given. Justice is won and must be
defended every day in a workplace where automation has strip mined the American
Workers’ rights are not defined by law or contract. Workers’ rights are defined by
struggle. I don’t have to explain this. We were all raised on the American Playground.
You know the rules.
Juanita is an example of the sort of leaders UAW members deserve. Women who put
principle before personal reward. Women who are not afraid to do the right thing.
Death runs through all our stories like the under current that commands the river, the
wind that cleanses the sky. It’s too late to deny it. Whatever we do now we do for the
next generation. Let’s get it right this time.
Everyone in the Con Caucus knew the prevalence of corruption. Each and every one of them contributed to the Flower Fund — a slush pile of dirty money. They consciously decided to materially support a corrupt caucus. Did you see anyone resign their toehold in the Con Caucus? No, that would require integrity. General Baker is the only one I ever heard who gave up an appointment at Sold Our Dignity House and went back to the floor.
Every Flower Funder from Gamble on down should be charged with conduct
unbecoming a union member. Just because you brought a picnic basket to the lynching
doesn’t mean you didn’t get your hands dirty. They participated in the betrayal. They
contributed dollars to the treachery. They knew. It was premeditated. Not a single one
can be trusted. Time to replace the old rotten barrel with a new one.
My wife, Sheila, and I lit candles in 2020 because we have been lighting candles all our
lives. Cuz that’s what you do, I was instructed. “Show an affirming flame.”
We can vote for honesty and integrity or we can go on plodding into the graveyard of
democracy, defending the status quo, dependent on the pay-offs of capitalists and the
legions of porkchoppers willing to sell out the membership of the UAW for a slice of
Solidarity is the first religion, all the rest is commentary.