Democracy in Action at the UAW: Rank-and-File Slate Takes on the Old Guard in Local 2110 Elections

As groups of rank-and file workers across the nation wrestle for more power in their unions, a new slate takes on the fight locally in UAW 2110 elections May 27–June 22.

Dylan Rice Jun 18, 2022

Zachary Valdez, president of the Columbia Univerisity Support Staff Rank & File Caucus of UAW-2110, and Leandra “Lee” B. Diaz, a graduate worker and member of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) at New York University, are running to serve as president and vice president of United Auto Workers Local 2110 on a slate aiming to significantly change the local’s approach to organizing and negotiating contracts. They stand in direct opposition to the handpicked successor of the local’s longtime leader.

Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers union represents more than 3,000 members, including workers from Barnard College, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Tenement Museum, the American Civil Liberties Union, Columbia University, and many more. The local has been under the stewardship of Maida Rosenstein for two decades now. Under her leadership, the union has grown significantly, including the recent May 26 decision by workers at the Jewish Museum in New York City to join the ranks of Local 2110.

The slate’s main priority, in sharp contrast to the current administration, is empowering rank-and-file members and building up the internal aspects of the union.

Local 2110’s elections began on May 27 and ended on June 22. “Maida Rosenstein is retiring and has handpicked a successor from her staff to continue running Local 2110, following much of the same strategies and priorities that have been in place for more than two decades now,” Diaz told The Indypendent. “Our campaign is called Democracy in Action, and we see this as an opportunity for a new day for Local 2110.”

Democracy in Action (DIA), according to Diaz, aims to incorporate a stronger focus on inclusivity regarding racial and ethnic concerns as well as a more aggressive stance when it comes to contract negotiations.’

The ten union members running on the DIA slate represent workers from Columbia University Support Staff, NYU Graduate Student Organizing Committee, Columbia University Support Staff, Asian American Writer’s Workshop, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and the Museum of Modern Art. 

“What we seek to do is improve on the legacy that Local 2110 has in the NY region and across the UAW by prioritizing [worker] democracy and horizontal power. For us, democracy is not just a slogan or a catchphrase, its a plan for action.”

The slate’s main priority, in sharp contrast to the current administration, is empowering rank-and-file members and building up the internal aspects of the union. This includes the establishment of a rank-and-file organizing committee to provide organizing training to all interested members and to help strengthen the ability of the union to grow.

“Rank-and-file members of 2110 will be able to actually participate in organizing the shops where their friends and families work. We can get people really riled up and committed to the labor movement by actually getting them involved in organizing which currently does not happen [in 2110],” said Valdez.

Valdez depicts a general dissatisfaction among the members of the slate and the rank-and-file members of Local 2110 towards the current administration.

“People feel left out from the local, left behind by the local, feel like they’re in the dark, don’t feel like they’re being represented, feel like their contracts are being rushed, feel like the contracts aren’t speaking to the demands that members have, feel like their needs to be more community,” said Valdez. “When their representatives resigned from the local, no one followed up with them to find out who the new representative is and so it’s left upon the members to do that when the local should be like, ‘Here’s your new representative.’”

DIA wants to see tuition remission for university academic workers — many of whom struggle to pay off debts, protection from bargaining unit erosion, protection from power-based harassment regardless of workplace and a guarantee that dining-area cashiers at Columbia stop being laid off seasonally.

Zachary Valdez decided to run for president after his conflicts with Local 2110 leadership during the UAW’s “One Member, One Vote” referendum — which seeks the right for UAW members to directly elect the members of the UAW International Executive Board, the highest ruling body of the UAW.

Valdez described consistent technical errors and a lack of communication that had the potential to disenfranchise significant numbers of the local’s membership. “There was also a lot of miscommunication and intentional misinterpretation of those rules.”

Regarding the referendum, the local only did the things that they were required to do by court decree, says Valdez. For example, “to send out an email to the entire membership to request people to update their mailing information so that they could receive a ballot because this was a mail-in ballot election. But in the email that the local sent out to the entire membership they didn’t mention anything about the referendum.”

And, the link itself that was provided by the local’s leadership didn’t work, said Valdez.“I immediately emailed them and let them know that the link was broken and it took them nearly a week to repair the link.” Then, when it did begin to work again around a week later, leadership didn’t even notify membership, says Valdez. 

Valdez consistently found himself at odds with leadership, battling to provide the information members needed to effectively participate in the referendum. 

“I become sort of the pest to them but I just kept emailing them and said, ‘This is not acceptable; this is an important election and yet you’re not updating the membership about this.’ A few hours after sending that email, they sent an email out and said ‘the link is active.’”

All members of the slate in are strong supporters and campaigners for the “one member, one vote” referendum. Diaz says that DIA members did not previously consider themselves to be individuals who would seek elected roles, only feeling obligated to do so in order to drive their union in what they believe to be a better direction.

“All of us who joined the slate came to it not really seeing ourselves as electoralists or people who were ever going to hold an executive office position. But it was through our experience corresponding with the current leadership of Local 2110 and seeing what could be improved that motivated us to join this slate. Plain and simple, we just want to win stronger contracts. Part of that is leading with big ideas and prioritizing racial and social justice.” 

Despite Local 2110 leadership’s stifling of “one member, one vote” advocacy, the voting region that encompasses 2110 passed the referendum. “We were open advocates for it at a moment where our local and our region actively dismissed and shut down conversations. We won our region by reaching out to workers and ensuring they knew an election was happening.”

Valdez charchterizes Rosenstein and the members of her administration as domineering and unwilling to allow rank-and-file members to take leadership in contract negotiations and union affairs. This “parental” approach is a main point of contention for the slate. Rosenstein’s lack of support for any strike effort for the ongoing negotiations between the Columbia support staff workers and the univeristy has led some members to question Rosenstein’s leadership and motivations.

“We know organized workers can win any demand if they remain unified in strength against their bosses!”

(Valdez says the methods that Student Workers of Columbia (SWC), also represented by the UAW, incorporated in their own strike and their eventual victory earlier this year served as a point of inspiration for the slate itself and for many rank-and-file members. Some members have pointed to the strike when talking to leadership as proof that a more militant approach would provide larger wins in negotiations. According to Valdez, Rosenstein was no fan of the SWC strike, either.)

Teamsters President Sean O’Brien’s recent landslide victory over Steve Vairma, former President James P. Hoffa’s handpicked choice to succeed him, appears to indicate a gathering momentum for grassroots power in America’s largest labor unions. UAW’s “one member, one vote” referendum was mandated by the Department of Justice following the conviction of 12 union officials on federal charges. The support for a direct voting system was overwhelming with 63.6% of voters backing the initiative. Diaz considers DIA to be connected to this movement.

“We are a militant slate. What we see as an opportunity moving forward, and I hope that others agree, is what’s needed from the grassroots level to shift the institutional culture — first in our local and then throughout our region — [is] to say ‘we can win big, we don’t have to acquiesce, it just takes some gumption.’”

Valdez expressed frustration at the limits the slate has dealt with in regard to reaching the membership at large. As the challengers to long-time incumbents, they do not have access to the institutional knowledge and resources that have been built up for decades that allow the incumbent slate, 2110 United, to easily reach members. 

“It’s hard to reach people because 2110 United has all the [contact information]. There’s really no internal organization structure where we could meet each other. We do make connections by showing up for each other when we can but not everyone can attend every single rally or picket that occurs.”

Valdez and Diaz say that when they are able to speak to members, the message of the slate resonates with them.

“When we talk to people our message does speak to them. We talk to people who feel that this local can be more than what it is, who want more community in the local…It seemed like there was a lot of support for the campaign and it still seems like there’s a lot of support for this slate.

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