The United Auto Workers has long been a powerful organization as the intermediary between workers and their corporate bosses, dictating the terms of working conditions in assembly plants including benefits and wages.
Its past leaders such as Walter Reuther were known to be powerful allies of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the civil rights movement.
But over time the power of the labor group began to wane because of dwindling membership, and critics say the UAW has been struggling to adjust to the changing times. Now those critics may have been given another reason to further question the reputation of the once-towering labor organization.
They will be pointing to the explosive federal indictment unsealed last Wednesday involving a former top gun at the UAW for alleged corruption, even though a former top Fiat Chrysler executive is also at the center of the indictments.
Expect to hear more about this from candidates next year who will use the scandal as a powerful counterargument if they are targeted by the union in campaign ads.
According to the 42-page charging document, a deceased former UAW vice president, General Holiefield, his wife Monica Morgan, a prominent Detroit photographer, and Al Icobelli, a former vice president of employee relations for Fiat Chrysler, were involved in a scam to enrich themselves with funds from the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center.
At the heart of the indictment are alleged payments of more than $1.2 million to Holiefield, Morgan and others from 2009 to 2014, including $262,219 used to pay off the mortgage on the couple’s Harrison Township residence. There are reports that more charges could be forthcoming in this scandal.
Dennis Williams, the UAW president, wasted no time in distancing his administration from the allegations by issuing a lengthy statement hours after the indictments became public.
“To be clear, these allegedly misallocated or misused NTC funds were not UAW dues nor were they union funds. These were monies funded by Chrysler pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement,” Williams said. “As your president, I am appalled by the conduct alleged in the indictment, which constitutes a betrayal of trust by a former member of our union.”
It makes sense for Williams to move quickly to reassure his members that these damaging allegations do not reflect on his team. The last thing the leadership of the UAW needs is for its members to start questioning the commitment of those who sit at the helm negotiating contracts on their behalf.
“Whenever there is corruption of this magnitude, it will hurt the image of labor, and in this particular case, the image of the UAW. The public, especially those who are anti-labor, will seize upon this incident to paint labor with a broad-brush and declare all labor unions and leaders to be corrupt, and will overlook all the good that labor does in America. The current bias against labor is fierce,” said Mike Smith, a labor historian and principal archivist at the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library.
“The timing of this is not good,” Smith added, citing an upcoming UAW membership vote at a Nissan plant in Mississippi. “I would hope that the reports of this isolated incident do not affect the outcome, but I’m sure those in opposition to the UAW will bring a coarse and shallow attention to this matter.”
Williams tried to address that concern in his statement.
“The current UAW leadership had absolutely no knowledge of the alleged fraudulent activities detailed by this indictment until they were brought to our attention by the government,” Williams said. “We nevertheless take responsibility for not doing more to exert our influence over the governance policies of the NTC, which might have uncovered this corruption sooner.”
Williams is doing all the right things to protect an organization that has been one of the biggest forces in politics today.
Still, it will be hard for the UAW to continue to be a watchdog for transparency, probity and accountability in government when its name is splashed all over a shocking indictment alleging corruption.
The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.