UAW scandal roils Nissan union election

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

The brewing scandal involving an alleged multi-million-dollar conspiracy to divert worker training funds within the top ranks of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and the United Auto Workers has the potential to hurt the union’s chances of representing workers at a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.

Workers at the Nissan Canton Vehicle Assembly Plant will vote Thursday and Friday on whether to be represented by the labor union. The election follows two previous failures by the UAW to represent workers at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. After other rejections in the union’s quest to represent workers employed by foreign automakers with factories in the South, it has been seen as the best chance for the UAW to gain a foothold there.

The last days of the campaign were being conducted against a backdrop of last week’s indictment of Monica Morgan-Holiefield, 54, of Harrison Township, and Fiat Chrysler Vice President for Employee Relations Alphons Iacobelli, 57, of Rochester Hills, for siphoning money that was meant for employee training to pay for personal expenses and travel in violation of the Labor Management Relations Act.

Morgan-Holiefield, who was married to the late UAW Vice President General Holiefield, is charged with participating in a multi-year enrichment scheme that allegedly included paying off her $262,000 mortgage and $30,000 in airline tickets, using money that was supposed to benefit blue-collar FCA workers. Iacobelli, a former top labor negotiator at Fiat Chrysler, is accused of pocketing employee training funds to pay for a $350,000 Ferrari 458 Spider, two solid-gold Mont Blanc pens costing $37,500 each, a swimming pool and more.

On Nissan’s local employee website and Facebook page, the Japanese automaker has posted news stories about the indictments and talked about the union’s legal troubles in presentations to workers.

“Voters have the right to know the company’s perspective on what we believe is in the best interest of our team and our plant, as well as important information about the UAW and about union representation,” Nissan said when asked about the latest twist in its “vote no” campaign. “The UAW has only ever wanted employees to hear one side of the story — the union’s side. The company has the right, and we believe the obligation, to provide employees with full information as they prepare to make this important decision, and we will continue to do so.

Gary Casteel, the UAW’s secretary-treasurer and director of the union’s transnational department, dismissed the idea that the allegations against its former leaders would harm the union’s chances of winning the Mississippi election.

“This was an isolated incident involving a rogue individual in our organization and a rogue individual in the corporation,” he said in a statement. “No union funds or dues were involved. Regardless, we dealt with it swiftly and decisively, and we have fully cooperated with authorities.”

Casteel added: “Nissan is trying desperately to make hay over this as part of their scorched-earth anti-union campaign, but we don’t believe it’s getting traction among employees. We remain focused on helping the workers in Mississippi to realize their goal of meaningful employee representation — and pushing back against Nissan, which seems determined to deny workers’ rights and civil rights.”

Art Wheaton, a labor expert at Cornell University, said the allegations of financial mismanagement come at a “less than perfect time. ”

“It gives a relatively poor impression of the joint labor-management program they had at FCA,” he said, added that the UAW was already facing an uphill battle in trying to organize workers in a region that is typically hostile to unions. “They’re trying to organize in a right-to-work state, which is extremely difficult,” Wheaton said.

Mississippi law prohibits agreements between employees and labor unions that mandate all employees pay union dues. Michigan passed such a measure in late 2012 that went into effect in March 2013.

Workers in Canton say the revelations about the alleged improprieties between the UAW and FCA have reverberated in the plant as both sides make their final pitches in the contentious organizing election.

Washad Catchings, a Nissan employee who has worked at the company’s Canton plant since it opened in 2003, said he heard about the indictments from co-workers.

Catchings said the news has not changed his thoughts about the necessity for Nissan workers to join the union. “You have scandals in church, but you don’t stop going to praise the Lord or whatever you do,” he said.

Mickey Fugitt, a tool-and-die technician who said he was a member of the Teamsters union at a previous job, offered a different take on the allegations.

“I’m not surprised. The union I was involved with, the president was under investigation for the same thing,” he added, referring to the 2014 indictment of former Teamsters Local 783 President Jerry Thomas Vincent Jr. in Louisville, who pleaded guilty in 2015 to multiple charges of embezzling labor union funds.

Fugitt said the latest news has not changed his feelings about joining the UAW: “I don’t think we need it. I’m fighting hard to get the word out.”

The UAW has sought to distance itself from the accusations in the run-up to the Mississippi election.

“This is certainly one of the toughest moments our union has faced in years,” UAW President Dennis Williams said in a letter to members that was released Tuesday.

“We are heartbroken and horrified to learn a man we knew, trusted and loved was involved in these alleged misdeeds,” Williams continued, noting, “UAW leadership knew nothing of General Holiefield’s illegal activities until the U.S. Attorney’s Office contacted us in January of last year.”

The UAW and its supporters have accused Nissan of seeking to block efforts to unionize by its workers in Mississippi, in violation of federal labor protections. They cite allegations from employees about receiving pressure from supervisors to vote “no” on unionization since the petition for the election was filed July 11.

Nissan, which builds Altimas, Frontiers, Muranos, Titans and NV commercial vans in Canton, has denied allegations of intimidating its workers there, and said the factory pays wages that are "significantly above the average central Mississippi production wage of $16.70 per hour." The company has argued there is not sufficient interest among its workforce in joining the UAW, pointing out that efforts to unionize at its Smyrna plant failed in 1989 and 2001.

The automaker says 6,400 are employed at the Canton plant. The UAW says Nissan workers there earn $26 per hour, while former temporary workers who are brought into the company through Nissan’s “Pathways” program earn $20 after five years. Temporary workers who have not been classified as full-time start at around $13 per hour, the union said.

Wages for UAW members at General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler NV plants start at $17 per hour for new “second-tier” hires, but can go as high as $29 after eight years on the job.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing