Why Do U.S. Auto Workers Get Election Day Off? Thank Their Union

Neat fact: While you probably had to wake up at some ungodly hour this morning (or dodge out of work) in order to get to the polls, the workers of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler have had a day off to go vote. 

And for that, they can thank the United Auto Workers.

Back in 1999, when the economy was roaring, car demand was at record heights, and Detroit's big three were terrified of factory strikes setting back production and profits, the UAW negotiated a contract that treated federal elections as paid holidays. At the time, the prospect of those 400,000 heading to the polls and helping turn out Democratic voters was was deeply upsetting to some Republicans, who shared their feelings with The New York Times (h/t to Reuters autos reporter Deepa Seetharman). 

Republican leaders fear that more union workers, who tend to vote Democratic, will go to the polls and that activists from the United Auto Workers union will use their day off to urge nonunion Democrats to vote. Republicans are particularly concerned because the bulk of the workers are in Michigan and Ohio, two big states that have played pivotal roles in recent presidential elections.

Republican Party officials are angered at their traditional corporate allies at General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler, the companies that agreed to the contracts.

''That will be the biggest corporate contribution in American political history,'' Gov. John Engler of Michigan said in an interview, ''because the corporations will be paying the wages and the U.A.W. will be using the manpower to attempt to defeat Republican candidates.''

Tell us how you really feel, John.

Today, the UAW's big membership is is considerably less fearsome as a voting bloc, numbering at about 110,000. But as Chrysler Vice President for Design Ralph Gilles explained on Twitter today, the companies eventually extended the right to salaried workers as well. 

Now, I think you can take away one of two lessons here: a) you might see this as an example of the malign influence of politically motivated unions or b) you might see this as yet another example of just how ludicrous it is that American elections aren't held on weekends, or treated as a national holiday. Apparently, it takes the help of one of the country's most powerful unions during the most flush economic period we've experienced in a generation to get the right to wait in line and vote without getting in trouble at work or losing a few hours of pay. Ain't Democracy grand? 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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