Leadership in a Changing Environment:  An Interview with UAW President Ray Curry

by Savoy Staff

By mid-2021, the nation was deep in the second year of a pandemic. It was a time when workers’ relationships to the economy and their jobs shifted in ways never seen before. Technological developments driven by the urgency of climate change were altering how vehicles were being built. Voting rights were being undermined under the pretense of clean elections. And the nation had a new president who was upfront about his belief that collective bargaining was a path for economic growth for our nation. Against this backdrop, the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) was slowly emerging from a period of great upheaval. A series of investigations uncovered criminal conduct of multiple individuals in leadership. Righting the ship of the storied and iconic union fell to Ray Curry on June 28 when he was elected by the UAW’s International Executive Board to complete the term of office being vacated by retiring President Rory Gamble.

Heading into the role, Curry had been the Secretary-Treasurer of the union for three years and part of the leadership team led by President Gamble, who had been working with the Department of Justice and a court-appointed monitor to design safeguards to protect the union. “Building new culture, creating systems to ensure ethical practices, and being transparent about the process was an enormous challenge, but a very necessary one. We need to do all the work to get it right,” says Curry today.

The road to Detroit started in North Carolina where Curry was born the eldest of three children. “I learned early on the value of a strong work ethic from my mother. She taught me to be independent and forward-looking. I started working while in high school and continued while attending college,” he remembers. While attending college, Curry made a critical decision: enlisting in the Army. “That experience truly shaped me. It’s where I first learned the power of working together. We could not function as a unit unless we acted as one.”

After three years on active duty and five years in the US Army Reserve, Curry returned to North Carolina where he hired on as a truck assembler at Freightliner in Mount Holly, North Carolina and became a member of UAW Local 5285. It was there that he learned first-hand the power of workers coming together to improve their lives. “It was 1992 and the country was coming out of a recession. Mount Holly had recently organized, and we were hard at work building a strong local. Right away I got active in the Civil and Human Rights Committee where I learned union’s history and deep connections with the fight for civil and economic justice. The two are connected, and the UAW has been at the center of both fights.”

A pivotal experience from those early years was the opportunity to organize. “There are no shortages of places to organize in the south. I remember talking to worker after worker about the struggles of trying to raise a family while having no real economic stability. Working nonunion means you work at the mercy of an employer who decides what you are worth. Organized workers have the right to come to the table and negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment. There’s dignity in that,” he adds.

Curry’s early roots in the labor movement of the south make him unique among today’s national union presidents. “It’s easy to make assumptions about organizing in the south. No doubt, there are powers aligned against workers in some of these states that don’t exist in union-dense states. But the people – the ones who go to work every day who want to be treated right – are the same no matter where they live.” It’s that optimism that marks Curry’s outlook. When others see challenges, he sees opportunity. “A reset is a time to not only right the wrongs but to build something better. That’s where we are today in our union. We must accept this mission as our members deserve nothing less.”

President Curry at the signing of the bipartisan infrastructure bill on November 15, 2021

One opportunity for UAW members is that the Biden Administration welcomes labor at the table. “Unions are part of the solution. For too long, we were told that unions are a drain on productivity or wages,” Curry says. “It’s not true. It’s the bargaining power of workers that drive wages up so we can have the middle class. Unions build communities. President Biden understands this. “An example of this commitment from the White House has been Biden’s support of an expanded tax credit for consumers who purchase an electric vehicle made by union labor. “A tax credit is an investment by this country. This administration supports union made vehicles because he knows our members deliver quality and value while also recognizing that our members lift the standards of the industry for all auto workers, whether they are union or not.”

For Curry, a daily mission is advocating for UAW members with allies and policymakers. He travels tirelessly and has the reputation of studying up for every meeting. “There are many progressive community, environmental or civil rights groups that fully understand that we must demand justice on many fronts to build a stronger future,” he notes. “Too often, they try to divide us to conquer us. That’s been a tactic designed to stop all of us.”

While working, Curry earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration / Finance from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Master of Business Administration from the University of Alabama. When he went on staff as a union representative in 2004, his assignments quickly included collective bargaining, arbitration, organizing, and political action. He remembers the loss of a 2014 campaign at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “Workers deserve the chance to freely decide if they want to be organized, free of intimidation from their employer,” said Curry. “We need policy that recognizes that a right to have a union is no right at all if you are threatened for exercising it. That’s why our union and others support the PRO Act, which must advance in Congress.”

As for the future, Curry is hopeful. “Our union includes one million active and retired workers. Millions more if you add their families. Our members come from every sector of the economy, every type of industry. “Does having such a diverse membership raise challenges? “Not at all. Though we might all do our work differently, we all want the same thing: fair wages and good working conditions. In every conversation with a member––whether an autoworker or a lawyer – I see their determination for a better future. I hear in their stories the same aspirations of those who have come before us in the labor movement. It is our duty today to continue the fight. If we join together and do the work and act strategically, I know we will be successful.”


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