Interview: Auto Workers Region 9 Winner on Rebuilding a Fighting Union

Two men in blue work shirts with nametags "Dan" and "Mohamed" sewn on stand side by side, arms around each other's shoulders, in a machine shop

Daniel Vicente (left), a machine operator from United Auto Workers Local 644 in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, is the incoming director of Region 9 after winning the runoff with 52 percent. He and the rest of the UAW Members United slate ran on a platform of no corruption, no tiers, and no concessions. Photo: Solomon Yikum.

Reform challenger Shawn Fain appears poised to win the presidency of the United Auto Workers, defeating incumbent Ray Curry for the union’s top leadership spot. With more than 137,000 votes counted, Fain has a lead of 645 votes; the counting of the remaining challenged ballots will resume March 16.

If Fain wins, challengers to the ruling caucus will hold not only the presidency but also a majority on the union’s international executive board. UAW Members United ran on a platform of no corruption, no tiers, and no concessions.

It’s a watershed after nearly 80 years of the Administration Caucus’s stranglehold on power—defined by corruption scandals, diminished bargaining power, and a multi-tier wage system that wrecked worker solidarity.

One of the victorious challengers on the UAW Members United slate is Daniel Vicente, a machine operator and a convention delegate representing Local 644 in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. After defeating Assistant Director Lauren Farrell with 52 percent in the runoff, he is now the incoming director of Region 9, which covers western and central New York, New Jersey, and most of Pennsylvania.

As Vicente prepared his family to move to Buffalo, New York, Labor Notes Assistant Editor Luis Feliz Leon spoke with him March 7 about the challenges and opportunities ahead and his vision to transform the UAW. Caitlyn Clark transcribed the interview. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. –Editors

Labor Notes: Tell me a bit about yourself and how you first hired in with the union.

Daniel Vicente: I’m 33 years old, married with four kids. I’ve lived in Pennsylvania most of my life, except for when I was in the service. My father is a retired CWA [Communications Workers] worker out of Philadelphia; he worked for Bell Atlantic and then Verizon. My stepdad’s a retired Teamster truck driver for UPS, and my grandfather was a welder and belonged, I believe, to the Steelworkers.

I got into manufacturing after getting out of the Marine Corps. The transition to civilian life was tough, so I took whatever work I could get. I was a short order cook, a dishwasher, a line cook—all in unorganized shops, pulling like 70 hours a week, just trying to make $10 an hour so I can pay my bills.

My wife was pregnant, and I needed to find more stable and better employment. So I applied with temp agencies, and they got me a job as a second shift assembler on an assembly line at the UAW plant. I knew that as long as you’re working 45 days, you’re entered onto the union seniority list. I just started applying for whatever job postings came up. My seniority and the lack of anybody else bidding on jobs allowed me to move up into better-paying machine operator jobs.

What’s a typical day on the job like?

The machines that I ran, they’re in-line plastic extrusion machines. They’re continuous operations, so the two shifts are running those machines as hard as they can run them all the time, because they feed the rest of the facility. Typically it’s 10-hour days, you could work 12 if you wanted to.

It’s really hot in the summertime and it’s really cold in the wintertime, but I think that’s typical of manufacturing. It was a great place to work and a great job. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m going to miss working machines.

And you were also a steward, right? Can you talk about that and what kind of training you got from the UAW?

[Laughs] I’ll just tell you straight up, the training I got from the UAW was none, other than the training I got from the other stewards.

Pretty early on, I was working on an R&D project with engineering and I was exposed to chemicals that sent me to the emergency room. I had to go on oxygen and everything else.

I was eventually fine and cleared to go to work. But I came back and I told my union shop chairman what had happened, and asked, “What are we going to do about this?” because clearly there’s some sort of safety violation somewhere. And I don’t want to curse or be crass, but he told me, “That’s not my f---ing problem.”

I was just taken aback. Because I remember my dad’s union—my sister got cancer when she was 11, and I just remember my dad’s union taking care of everything and telling him not to worry about his job. That’s what I remembered of unionism, and then this dude telling me to f. off when I went to the emergency room? Right there and then I was like, “I’m going to run for whatever position opens up next.”

I started off as a steward in 2018. And then the vice chair of the bargaining committee retired, and I ran for his spot, then recording secretary, then delegate.

Eventually the opportunity came to run for regional director. I felt that we should at least challenge the incumbents everywhere that we could. If we end up winning, all the better—but we have to show them that we got the fight in us and we’re not just going to accept the status quo.

What was your experience like at the July convention?

It was an eye-opening experience. I had always heard from the more seasoned UAW workers that those things used to be very contentious and very rowdy—that there were noisemakers and whistles and intimidation. The first couple days of that convention I felt were actually quite democratic. There was open debate on the floor. There were honest disagreements, but everything seemed pretty respectful.

And then the final two days of the convention, the whole vibe changed. There was a vote to increase the strike pay, which came from the delegates, from a weekly payout of $400 to $500. That was awesome—we were super psyched about that. That night I saw firsthand the international servicing reps putting the screws to delegates, telling them that they had to go back to the floor and vote that $500 increase down.

They were spinning Chicken Little stories like the sky is going to fall and the strike fund will be defunded if we have that strike pay. And this was the most disgusting thing they were telling delegates: “Well, this $500 will encourage strikes. Some of these workers will make more money on strike than if they were at work.” If you’re making more money when you’re on strike than if you’re at work, then you should be on strike because obviously your contract sucks.

The morning of the last day of the convention, there was a nomination process which should have taken 20 minutes and they dragged it out for like two, three hours. We didn’t know why they were doing it until the very end of the convention [when some delegates had already left] and they voted [the strike pay] back down to $400.

I was absolutely furious. I went immediately outside and talked to the press. I let them know that I felt like we had been robbed by our previous leaders that were in prison, and I felt we were getting robbed by the current leaders as well.

It just spurred me on. I knew I faced an uphill battle running for Regional Director but morally I was doing what I felt was the right thing.

Given all of that, what do you think comes next? What do you think it will take to transform the UAW?

As a worker, I never saw my regional director, not once. I’m going to be on the road quite a bit, because we need to get out in front of the membership, and we need to start hearing from them, their concerns and their needs. If they’re angry at the union, which they are, you have to listen to them and hear what makes them angry.

We need to start educating our membership and rebuilding solidarity in the shops. Our education program has been severely lacking in Region 9. So we’re going to have to educate our members as to why engaging in the union is important, the history of the union, and that when we band together, we win.

The other thing is, we need to start pushing and working together across the regions to start organizing new facilities. Independent unions are popping up left and right because they don’t have faith in the traditional unions. I want to try to find new facilities that have the spark of unionism in them and provide them the tools and the resources necessary to organize themselves under the UAW. But I don’t want to dominate and dictate to them, “You’re going to do this and you’re going to do that.” I want to know what your workers need from us, and I hope that you would organize with us so that we can grow our union and the labor movement as a whole.

What would it take to get members involved who have been disillusioned over the years because of the corruption because of the one-party state within the UAW? What is it going to take for the rank and file to run the union?

The first thing is, it’s going to require transparency. We no longer can be operating behind closed doors and not putting information out to our members. We’re still operating with 1960s technology, with bulletin boards and mailings. That is still an effective way to get across to some of our members, particularly our retirees, so I don’t want to end that, but we live in the 21st century. The Teamsters have an app where you can reach your stewards, you can reach your committee people, you can have your contract right on your phone.

If positions open up on staff, we should be taking resumés. We shouldn’t be just a club of people’s friends getting jobs, because that’s what led to the nepotism and the problems we’ve had with corruption.

Also, what’s going to be huge for rebuilding trust is these upcoming negotiations. We are going to have to stick our foot in the ground and make demands of these companies. No more asking “Please.” Our workers, particularly the auto workers, but across the whole UAW when the recession happened, we did what we had to do to save these companies. They asked us to make the concessions that were necessary to save the companies. And we did.

But now these companies are making record profits again, and it’s time to get back what was taken. If the companies are not willing to do that, then we have to seriously entertain our most powerful tool, and frankly, that’s withholding our labor. We can’t tiptoe around it. There’s a real fight coming, and our members sent us to the International Executive Board because I think that is their expectation.

On a Facebook post, you talked about how it’s going to be bittersweet to leave the shop floor and move to Buffalo. Any lessons you will take from the shop floor to the leadership post you’ll now hold?

When you work at a manufacturing shop and you’re the new guy, people are gonna give it to you. They’re gonna underestimate you and they’re gonna doubt that you can do the job.

The only thing you can do in that environment, when more seasoned people are doubting you or giving you a hard time, is just put your head down and do the work. When you are willing to grind it out every day on the shop floor, over time, people start to respect you.

Then you start to get the respect of the more senior people—going in day in and day out, being humble enough to listen to them when they give you advice, and putting your foot down when you think they’re wrong. That’s what I plan to carry to the region.

I definitely am gonna miss that floor. I made friends there. You know, we go to work so we can provide for our families, but the people you spend time with at work become like your family. So I will be missing my brother Mohamed, because we spent endless, endless hours together working machines.

But the other thing is, when you get to know your fellow workers on a personal level, you get to know their families and their stories, and it makes it more real for you. Those stories are not unique to my shop; those stories are across the whole region and the UAW. Working people in this country are really struggling right now just to get by, just to figure out how to pay bills.

I got new people, assembly workers coming in—there’s nothing wrong with it, but they have to get assistance from the government just to get food. And that’s not acceptable. If you have a United Auto Workers job, and you have to get government assistance, then your employer has failed you and your union has failed you. We can no longer accept that.

If I can say one last thing. We don’t exist as a one union island. UAW exists as part of a larger labor movement that right now has a fire under it and we need to take advantage of that fire. Because the UAW is under attack by our companies, which means all unions are under attack.

We’re going to have to build bridges across our unions; we’re going to have to work together with the independent unions. Ultimately, a win for the UAW is a win for the Teamsters and a win for the rail workers and a win for the Starbucks workers. We’re part of a larger movement. I’m just looking forward to getting to work.

Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor