Amid UAW crisis, Detroit Labor Day parade is low-key celebration

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

There will be no presidential candidates shaking hands or giving speeches at Monday's Labor Day parade in Detroit, bucking years of tradition in which those seeking office have appealed for votes in the stronghold of organized labor.

This year's parade is shaping up to be a subdued affair, taking place under the cloud of a widening federal investigation into corruption within the leadership of the United Auto Workers. Barring last-minute changes, none of the 20-odd presidential candidates has announced an appearance. Nor is UAW leadership slated to speak just five days after the Canton home of the sitting president of the union was raided by federal agents — and less than two weeks before labor contracts with Detroit automakers expire.

The Labor Day parade presents an opportunity for UAW leadership to address a membership that is demanding answers as the probe clouds contract negotiations with Detroit carmakers, experts said. But instead of a call for unity and calm by UAW leaders, at least one contingent of workers will march in protest when the parade steps off at 9:30 a.m.

"This has always been an opportunity for the union to kind of raise its hand in southeast Michigan," said Matt Friedman, a Farmington Hills-based public relations professional and media analyst. "This is a very different kind of year for that. There's the specter of scandal hanging over an event like this."

Federal agents on Wednesday raided six locations in four states tied to current or former UAW officials. The raids included the homes of UAW President Gary Jones and former President Dennis Williams. The latest revelations have further angered some UAW rank-and-file-members, with some vowing to vote "no" when the current labor agreements expire Sept. 15.

Local and national politicians traditionally have made the march from old Tiger Stadium, down Michigan Avenue to Hart Plaza. President Barack Obama spoke in 2008 and again in 2011. Vice President Joe Biden spoke in 2012 and 2014. Former President Bill Clinton campaigned on behalf of his wife Hillary in 2016. Donald Trump, then the Republicans' presidential nominee, swept through Detroit on Labor Day weekend that same year.

No major speakers are scheduled this year, according to the UAW and the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO. UAW officials are not expected to deliver formal remarks Monday but were expected to appear in the parade, according to union spokesman Brian Rothenberg. Solidarity House has been closed due to a fire, so it is unlikely there will be a formal gathering outside the UAW headquarters on the after the march, he said. Rothenberg said the UAW wants to focus on the membership this year.

The UAW and other unions don't typically solicit speakers. Big names raise the overall cost of the parade by way of added security and stages. But in the past, if a national figure wanted to march with workers and deliver remarks, they've typically been welcomed.

State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, said he has "no idea" why no presidential candidates will be present, but said he will be be there to support labor.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, plans to speak at a Flint UAW event on Labor Day and encouraged presidential candidates to keep visiting Michigan. "I think they’re missing an opportunity, but I guess they got to control their own schedules," he said.

The UAW could use a symbol of strength at a time when the potential for government oversight hangs over the labor union, Friedman said.

"They need to think of a way to reassure their membership and speak to the broader community about what they're all about and why they're still around," said Friedman. "A lot of it is about reassurance. They need to reassure not only their members but also a bigger audience that whatever's being investigated is not going to get in the way. That's a challenge, but it's also an opportunity."

The investigation to-date has led to charges against nine people and eight convictions, mostly among former UAW leaders. Wednesday's raids revealed the federal government is investigating Jones for a range of potential crimes, including financial dealings involving the nonprofit charity he founded, and whether he or other union officials spent member dues on junkets to California.

UAW members say they want answers. If the union fails to provide any, the leadership risks being overshadowed by opposition groups at Monday's parade.

"I can assure you 95-99% of my fellow co-workers from Local 412 have almost zero faith in the union's ability," UAW member and Fiat Chrysler employee John Madeja told The Detroit News. "No one trusts the company or UAW, and just about everyone plans on voting 'no' to the first contract no matter how good it is. We simply don't trust them."

One group of disaffected UAW members is calling for others to join them and carry signs to protest the international union's leadership during Monday's parade

"This is supposed to be all about solidarity, and there are groups that are trying to organize to show they have solidarity against their union leadership,"  said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor, and economics at the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. "This could be a galvanizing moment for them."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.