As the U.A.W. Scores Wins in Red States, Tensions Emerge Over Gaza Protests

The United Automobile 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 Israel’s war in Gaza.

U.A.W. leaders insist that they can smooth out the dissonance between the dual thrusts of U.A.W. activism — one on college campuses, the other on red-state assembly lines. But it will not be easy. The U.A.W. 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 U.A.W. member and staff lawyer in the family court bureau of the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, N.Y., who has clashed with his local over a pro-Palestine resolution he called “slightly more radical than Hezbollah.”

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 E.V. battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio, solid evidence that President 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 U.A.W. in Ohio and Indiana. “We’ve been trying to have a just transition and stop this race to the bottom for wages for E.V. workers. This contract is very exciting.”

At the same time that the contract emerged, the University of California was suing a U.A.W. 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 U.A.W. 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 U.A.W. 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.

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

Without question, under Mr. Fain’s muscular leadership, the U.A.W. has made strides toward reconnecting with the working class, a plus for President Biden, whom the union has endorsed. A six-week wave of strikes against the Big Three automakers last fall yielded the biggest pay raises for autoworkers in decades. An 11th-hour deal at the edge of a strike in April against Daimler Truck in North Carolina gave workers 25 percent raises.

Just days later, workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted overwhelmingly to join the U.A.W., 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 U.A.W. representation. On Monday, a court-appointed monitor watching the union for corruption accused Mr. Fain and the new leaders of obstructing attempts to access information in violation of a 2020 consent decree reached by the leaders whom Mr. Fain ousted to avoid a Justice Department takeover of the union.

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

But just like Mr. Biden, Mr. Fain also has to placate pro-Palestinian activists, who are a legacy of past U.A.W. 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 U.A.W., 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 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 U.A.W. 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.”

Not everyone sees it that way, inside the union and out. Last month, Republicans in Congress got involved when Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, subpoenaed the president of a small New York U.A.W. local that represents legal aid workers over its contentious vote for a cease-fire in Gaza and attendant accusations of antisemitism.

The local itself is badly split, with some calling the Republican probe a witch hunt and others suing their own union.

“It completely undermines us with management, it completely undermines us in the court of public opinion, and it distracts from the union doing what it’s supposed to be doing: advocating for workers,” Mr. Altman said. “It’s preposterous.”

U.A.W. 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 U.A.W. leadership committed to serving the membership and running a democratic union,” Mr. Fain said.

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 U.A.W. became the first major union to demand a cease-fire in Gaza, the board vote was unanimous.

Mr. Fain reasoned that 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 U.A.W.’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 U.A.W. 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.”

U.A.W. officials downplayed any disconnect. Some white, skilled tradesmen in the South may recoil at left-wing activism, officials said, but plenty of Southern workers, especially workers of color, agree with calls for an end to the war in Gaza, especially when it is tied to U.S. tax money, the officials added. Tim O’Hara, who was the vice president of the U.A.W. local in Lordstown, Ohio, when the G.M. plant shut down in 2018, preferred to talk up the new Ultium contract.

Lordstown’s local has always been “iconic,” he said. “They have now set the pattern for the contracts that will be negotiated for the Big 3 battery facilities” across the country.

Mr. Mancilla, the U.A.W. board member, noted that the union had also endorsed Mr. Biden’s re-election, although many workers are not likely to vote for him. The activism on Gaza might not be a “day-to-day conversation” for organizers in Southern auto plants, he said. But he added, “I wouldn’t say anyone is being quiet about anything. We’re not hiding that we endorsed Joe Biden, even though many of our members might have different party affiliations.”

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