New UAW president tasked with post pandemic challenges amidst growing EV market
Detroit automakers are forming joint ventures to set up new battery plants that the union will have to organize.
Ray Curry is taking over leadership of the United Auto Workers at perhaps the most critical juncture in the union’s history.
The UAW’s International Executive Board on June 28 named Curry, its secretary-treasurer, as union president, replacing Rory Gamble, who retires on June 30.
As soon as he takes over the 397,000-member union on July 1, Curry will face extreme challenges in just about every direction. The UAW is coming out of a bribery and embezzlement scandal that sent two former presidents to prison, and it’s operating under a court-approved monitor who can veto financial decisions. Members are skeptical about their leadership.
There also are questions about safety protocols as the coronavirus pandemic wanes, and about shortages of critical parts such as computer chips that have crimped auto production by forcing plant shutdowns.
The auto industry, where most of the UAW’s highest-paid members work, is undergoing a seismic shift from internal-combustion to electric vehicles, placing thousands of jobs making gas-powered engines and transmissions in jeopardy.
Detroit automakers are forming joint ventures to set up new battery plants that the union will have to organize. And it will probably try to unionize new battery factories in the South. Since electric cars have fewer moving parts, automakers will need about 30% fewer workers to assemble them.
“I can’t even imagine a time with more change than we’re dealing with,” said Kristin Dziczek, senior vice president at the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“If the union can’t organize Southern battery factories, it won’t be able to set wages in that business like it has done in auto manufacturing,” she said.
Curry, 55, has only about a year to distance himself from the corruption and convince members he’ll get the union on track. Sometime before November, members will vote to decide whether they want to directly elect their leaders instead of the current system in which leadership is chosen by delegates to a convention. If they agree to direct elections, those will have to happen before June 30 of next year.
Curry doesn’t come from the traditional leadership path that begins at one of the Detroit automakers. He joined the UAW in 1992 as an assembler at Freightliner Trucks in Mount Holly, North Carolina, and worked his way up to regional director in the South.
He negotiated new labor contracts with numerous auto parts makers, and helped to organize Freightliner factories in North Carolina, according to his biography on the union’s website. He also led the union’s move into casinos in 2015 when the UAW successfully organized workers at the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore.
Curry’s background of organizing and knowledge of the South could be plusses for the union, Dziczek said. Although it has had trouble organizing Volkswagen and Nissan factories in the South, under Curry it has had success in unionizing parts suppliers and heavy-truck factories, Kristin Dziczek said.
Curry has been the top union official involved in a long-running strike by 3,000 workers at a Volvo truck plant in southwest Virginia. Workers have twice rejected six-year tentative agreements negotiated by their leaders and returned to the picket lines in early June.