New UAW President Gary Jones takes over at uncertain time

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News
Gary Jones, new UAW president, gives his first speech on the final day of the convention at Cobo Center.

Detroit — The new president of the United Auto Workers, Gary Jones, is taking the top job at an uncertain time for the union.

By this time next year, the former Region 5 director and certified accountant will be poised to lead local UAW members through a collective bargaining process with Detroit's automakers amid organizing challenges, possible consequences of steel and aluminum tariffs, and uncertainty surrounding global trade — all of which could have implications for the union's rank-and-file.

In his first news conference as president of the UAW, the 60-year-old Jones said Thursday he had not been briefed on tariffs. But he said he's keeping his eye on both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. President Donald Trump is threatening to bolt NAFTA, and he's already withdrawn the United States from TPP.

 "I think we all need to be careful with NAFTA," Jones said. "To not get our hopes on (NAFTA) and have TPP be able to supersede NAFTA."

On organizing, Jones said he's bringing those efforts under the supervision of his office: "We’re going to look at all of our drives," he said, "where our successes were and our failures, and we’re going to try to repeat our successes."

The union is hoping to rebound from a devastating defeat in organizing Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi, and a failed organizing attempt of line workers at Volkswagen AG’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

But under the tenure of Jones' predecessor Dennis Williams, the union grew its membership to more than 430,000, claimed near-record profit-sharing payouts for members, added to its strike and defense fund, and balanced its budget after tough blows delivered when two of three Detroit automakers collapsed into bankruptcy in 2009.

"These are all significant achievements," Jones said, thanking Williams and former secretary-treasurer Gary Casteel for leaving the union "in good financial shape and structural shape."

Ray Curry takes over for Casteel as the union's new secretary-treasurer.

This week's Constitutional Convention came amid a continuing federal probe into the use of joint UAW-Big Three training funds financed by Detroit’s automakers.

Jones began the conference by addressing a Detroit News report in which federal authorities labeled the union and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV as co-conspirators in the widening scandal.

It's the first time FCA and the union have been identified separately from individuals in the case. The government has not brought charges against either the company or the union.

Jones said "specific individuals, not institutions like the UAW" are to blame.

"We are cooperating with the investigation and I’m not going into much further details than that," he said, reiterating his predecessor Dennis Williams' stance that a few bad apples are not representative of the union as a whole.

"The UAW is absolutely devoted to bettering the lives and job conditions of America’s men and women. We will not be distracted from that mission," Jones said.

Jones deflected most other follow-up questions about the federal probe, and seemed reluctant to make public an internal investigation Williams made reference to earlier in the week.

"I’ve got to talk to our attorneys," Jones said after initially saying he wouldn't make the internal report public. "I don’t know about the report. Let me talk to counsel." 

Assignments for newly elected UAW vice presidents were announced at the news conference. In a surprise, Vice President Cindy Estrada, who has led the union's General Motors Co. department since 2014, will now lead the union's FCA department. Rory Gamble will replace Jimmy Settles as leader of the union's Ford department, while Terry Dittes will oversee GM.

Jones said Estrada's unexpected shift from GM to FCA, just a year out from the next round of contract negotiations, is in line with what other organizations do with their leadership. 

"If you look at what a lot of the other major corporations do and other structures do, they move their senior executives from department to department to gain a lot of experience," he said. Estrada is "well-rounded and well-suited for the job."

He also said Estrada's experience working with younger, tech-oriented employees is a needed skill at the FCA shop. The FCA membership is "very young, they’re technology-oriented," Jones said. "Cindy has got that talent. I don’t know a Twitter from an anything else like that, but she’s very good at that stuff."

The Detroit News reported in November that federal investigators are interested in Estrada and her predecessor, Joe Ashton, in a widening investigation into training centers funded by all three Detroit automakers. Ashton resigned from GM's board of directors weeks after the report.

In his first address to delegates earlier Thursday, Jones says he's ready to fight for his members. The former regional director from Missouri took the podium at the union's 37th Constitutional Convention to the "Rocky" theme, blaring horns and a standing ovation.

"I am here to fight for you," Jones said in a passionate address to delegates and his fellow union leaders at Cobo Center. "Knowing our core values, knowing who we are and knowing what the UAW is about could not be more important than it is today. It is a time of very deep political divides and social unrest."

The new president criticized so-called right-to-work efforts that he says threaten the collective bargaining process. And he took a hard line on social justice issues, stating that union values are color-blind, gender-neutral and dedicated to equality.

Jones succeeds Williams, who is retiring at age 65 after a single term. Under traditions of the union, a president cannot run for a presidential term after his or her 65th birthday. That means Jones could run for a second term in four years.

A certified public accountant, Jones has been a member of the union since 1975 and has held multiple financial roles with the union starting in 1990 when he joined the UAW's accounting department.

He was named chief accountant in 1991, appointed top administrative assistant to the UAW's secretary-treasurer in 1995 and served in that role until 2004 when he became assistant director of Region 5.

Jones took over in 2014 as director of Region 5, representing UAW members and retirees in 17 states in the western and southwestern United states including Missouri, California and Washington state.

Twitter: @noranaughton