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John Deere union workers begin voting on direct UAW representation

One million United Auto Workers can now decide if they want to directly elect their leadership, which is currently chosen by delegates.

MILAN, Ill. — Beginning Tuesday, nearly one million United Auto Workers uinon members began receiving ballots regarding a union-wide vote. The big question: Should union members be able to directly elect their leadership?

Ballots went out Tuesday, Oct. 19 and are due back by Monday, Nov. 29. 

Currently, the union's 400,000 working members and roughly 600,000 retirees have no say in their representation or leadership. Holders of each four-year term within the union are chosen through delegates. Consequently, a so-called "Administration Caucus" has created a tightly-controlled political landscape within the union.  

Scott Houldieson, a union member at a Ford plant in Chicago, said frustration towards UAW leaders has been boiling over for years. 

"The membership is fed up with the representation that they're getting from this international union," he said. "The UAW has not been very forthcoming about this vote happening. But it's here, it's on us." 

Houldieson, like many union members, claimed the contracts negotiated by the UAW have been conceding more to big companies and less to laborers. He said that's evident in the latest contract negotiated between Deere & Company and the UAW. When union members voted on approval of the contract earlier this month, it failed by 90%. 

"It's very uncommon for a contract that's promoted by the union to be voted down by 90%. That just doesn't happen very often. But it's happened twice this year," said Houldieson. "It's happened with Volvo, and now, it's happened with Deere. They were obviously frustrated with the contract that they were offered." 

On top of negotiation frustration, the union has been rocked with a series of corruption scandals over the past few years. In 2017, several top UAW officials were charged with embezzling, accepting bribes and misusing funds. Former UAW regional director Vance Pearson and former presidents Dennis Williams and Gary Jones have all been sentenced to prison. 

On the picket lines, union members said they're just as frustrated with the UAW leadership as they are with Deere. One worker in Waterloo, speaking anonymously to News 8, said she doesn't feel as though the union is for her anymore. 

"People are very angry about it. They feel like the UAW is not for us anymore, and we don't feel like the locals are any better," she said. "We don't feel they're looking out for us. They're looking out for themselves." 

That's precisely why Houldieson hopes union members vote for direct representation. 

"We're going to get a chance to decide whether we want to continue with the convention system of electing officers or switch to a direct voting system where every UAW member will have the opportunity to vote on who represents them at the highest levels of our union, including the president," he said. 

While he admitted it's been difficult organizing awareness and excitement around the vote, especially since COVID-19 canceled months of in-person chapter meetings, Houldieson was holding out for change in the UAW. 

"The convention system has worked very well for the administration caucus," he said. "It's led this union for 70 years, but it has not worked well for the membership of the UAW." 

Find WQAD's full coverage of the John Deere contract negotiations here.

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