UAW corruption probe stirs distrust among rank-and-file

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — The widening corruption investigation into the United Auto Workers could create a new level of distrust between the rank-and-file at the union and leadership, and make them suspicious of any deal struck with carmakers in ongoing contract talks, experts say.

Before Wednesday’s raids by federal agents, including the homes of UAW President Gary Jones and former President Dennis Williams, there already was a sense among union members and industry watchers that the likelihood of a strike was already much higher than it had been in years. The latest news rocking the union is likely to raise worker tensions even higher.

Shawn Briles, a general laborer at the Lansing Regional Stamping plant and member of the United Auto Workers Local 652, voted in favor of strike authorization because he wants General Motors to know the workers are willing to strike if the contract doesn't meet their needs.

"Striking workers really need to trust their leadership," said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor, and economics at the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. That's because the workers would be taking on "personal economic pain" with strike pay of $250 a week if the union called a strike, Dziczek said.

Workers are going to be looking at developments in negotiations "with a jaundiced eye," said Marick Masters, a professor of business and the former director of labor studies at Wayne State University. "You want to go out on strike, yet there’s this cloud hanging over that has to give some people pause."

Whether all this makes a strike more or less unlikely when labor contracts with the Detroit Three expire after 11:59 p.m. Sept. 14 — or cause workers to vote "no" on any contract ratification out of anger or distrust — is uncertain.

Union members want to be assured the contract the leaders present for ratification is the best one for workers, Masters said. 

"That is a harder assurance to give when there's a cloud hanging over your head," he said.

To restore some element of trust, Masters believes the UAW executive board should be called into session as early as Thursday morning to consider appointing a review board.

That likely wouldn't be enough to satisfy Chris Werline, a 38-year-old production worker at Fiat Chrysler's Kokomo Transmission Plant in Indiana. He wants officials under investigation, including Jones, to resign.

"It's why I'm pissed today," Werline said. "They need to step down at least until the investigation is done, especially during the contract talks. Where's the respect for the workers in all of this?"

Mike Booth, president of Local 961 in Warren, wasn't surprised by Wednesday's raids. 

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “It’s bad going into negotiations, but we need to clean up our union before our negotiations are completed. The membership deserves a union that works for them.”

Strike authorization 

The head of the union local at General Motors' Lansing Grand River Assembly has been telling his members for more than a year to save their money in case there's a strike.

"For me, it’s a feeling that the temperature, the mood is there from both sides," said United Auto Workers Local 652 President Randy Freeman, who also represents UAW workers at two GM stamping plants in Lansing. "We got some disagreements we are working on. It just seems like there is a lot of friction out there right now, and hopefully, that can be resolved."

The UAW's strike authorization vote will be completed this week at the locals. It's a standard procedure during negotiations to show Detroit carmakers that the membership is unified and ready to strike if necessary. Historically, a strike authorization is approved overwhelmingly.

While the strike authorization vote is procedural and doesn't guarantee a walkout, labor experts, union members and leaders see high potential for at least one strike because of how contentious these negotiations are.

Shawn Briles, 40, a general laborer at the Lansing Regional Stamping plant and member of UAW Local 652 voted yes on Monday for the strike authorization because he thinks it's important to let GM know the union members are willing to go out if the contract isn't good enough for them. Local 652's strike authorization passed with 98.2% voting "yes."

Briles said he believes a work stoppage is most likely, although that doesn't mean he's hoping for one to happen.

"I got money saved," Briles said. "Last negotiations, I think we had better leverage going in there. This time, they are closing plants, people are out of jobs."

In November, GM "unallocated" four U.S. plants: Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, Warren Transmission, Lordstown Assembly and Baltimore Operations plants. "Unallocated" means that without products to build, the plants go dark. Only the Detroit-Hamtramck plant is still running, but production is expected to cease in January.

GM has said every worker impacted has an opportunity for a job elsewhere in the company. Of the 2,800 workers at the plants, so far 2,156 have accepted transfers. The UAW has said it will fight to get GM products back into the plants. 

"I would like to see us come out on the better end of the deal," Briles said. "With all the plants closing down, you don't know if you are the next one to go."

Bill Bagwell, UAW shop chairman of Local 174 representing 128 workers at the GM Customer Care and Aftersales Plant in Ypsilanti, said all of its members who voted were in favor of strike authorization.

“I have worked at GM for 35 years, and we’ve never had 100%,” Bagwell said. “We’ve had 90%, 95%, 99%, but never 100%, never unanimous.”

National strike authorization vote results are expected to be released later this week.

Meanwhile, both sides of the bargaining table face pressures that could lead to an impasse. 

GM, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Ford Motor Co. have recorded big profits since the last labor contracts were signed four years ago. But they are investing in costly development of electric and self-driving technology. Automakers also are looking at softening vehicle sales, with forecasts of even steeper drops in coming years.

"All of these things put the companies in the position where they need to free up as much capital as they possibly can to invest in the new technologies, and the union at the same time is going to want to put a claim on those profits," Masters said.

The union will be holding out for wage increases and to protect profit-sharing and health care benefits, Masters said.

Strike scenario

Art Wheaton, an automotive industry specialist at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, thinks GM and Fiat Chrysler are the "most likely" companies to be targeted for strikes.

Fiat Chrysler is likely to be a target because of the ongoing corruption scandal involving UAW officials with that carmaker.

"I don’t know how much the membership at Fiat Chrysler really trusts in the UAW at this particular moment for collective bargaining," Wheaton said. 

And GM could be targeted because the company "deliberately misled the UAW by unallocating plants during a contract even as profits were high," he said.

If a strike does happen, Wheaton doesn't think it will last long. 

"The purpose of that strike would be to kind of give a jolt or a shock to the membership in order to help them ratify a deal," Wheaton said. 

Strike targets likely would be "bottleneck" plants that supply key parts to multiple plants — for instance, a transmission or engine plant.

"It costs the union less to do that, it puts fewer members in hardship and it has the same effect of taking the whole company down,"  Dziczek said.

One of the most notable targeted strikes happened in 1998 when more than 9,000 workers at two GM plants in Flint, including a metal stamping facility, picketed for 54 days and affected 30 assembly plants. The strike, which did not take place during national bargaining but were local strikes about health and safety, cost GM more than $2 billion. 

A long-lasting companywide strike hasn't happened since the 1970s. A nationwide GM strike lasted 67 days in 1970. The last national strike at Ford took place in 1978 and lasted 28 days.

The most recent strikes in 2007 were national strikes at GM and Chrysler, but they didn't have a significant impact on the companies because they were hours long.

"The lever that the UAW has in negotiations is withholding labor," Dziczek said.

"They have to be willing to use it ... but I don’t think anybody takes that decision lightly to take members out because you don’t know how long it can be. It’s not the first resort, but they have to be prepared to use it."

Twitter: @bykaleahall

Staff writer Breana Noble contributed.