UAW workers march in solidarity in Detroit amid corruption probe

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — United Auto Workers members chanted "We are the union, the mighty, mighty union" and marched together in solidarity as they typically would at the Labor Day parade.

This year's parade, though, comes at a tough time for the UAW.

An ongoing federal corruption investigation that has so far led to eight convictions has put a cloud over the union and its leadership as they enter a critical time in contract negotiations with Detroit automakers. The investigation last week led federal agents to search the homes of UAW President Gary Jones and former President Dennis Williams.

As they marched Monday, some union members expressed anxieties about the investigation.

Chris Fiebig, a member of the Local 140 and employee at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' Warren Truck Assembly Plant, marched with his fellow members on Labor Day. He said he is "totally" supportive of the union, but has "deep concerns" about the corruption. 

"We have the international president under investigation and we're hoping it doesn't hurt the contract negotiations," Fiebig said. "I think the timing was pretty bad."

Labor talks were going to be difficult even without an ongoing federal probe. The union wants more plant investment with new products for U.S. plants, higher pay, and retention of or improved health care benefits and profit sharing. Automakers, on the other hand, want to cut back on labor costs to align with what foreign automakers spend to build cars in the United States.

The current contract expires after 11:59 p.m. Sept. 14.

David Parnell Jr., a GM Flint Assembly Plant worker who used to work at the "unallocated" Detroit-Hamtramck plant, called the investigation a "witch hunt." He suspects the federal government waited until Jones was president to go after him in an effort to seize control of the union.

"Why didn't you go after him when he was a regional director?" he said.

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, center, marched in Detroit's Labor Day parade.

The government, Parnell believes, wants to eliminate the UAW and make the U.S. a "right-to-work" country: "You take [the UAW] down and you start taking everybody else down one by one."

Jones did walk in the first part of the parade before exiting at Michigan and Third for what UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said was another commitment. The union president did not address the membership at the parade's conclusion.

"Today is about labor, it's about the workers," Rothenberg told The Detroit News. "They stood up for these companies when they had their darkest days and now it's time for the companies to stand up for them."

A contingent of about 20 UAW workers calling for reform was organized by Brian Keller, an employee at Fiat Chrysler's Sherwood distribution center for Mopar parts in Warren. Keller unsuccessfully ran against Jones for the union presidency in 2018.

The group was far outnumbered by other UAW marchers estimated at 700-800 by Rothenberg. The dissident members made clear they came not to protest the parade or labor, but the corruption that has been uncovered by the federal government. They want union leaders to step down.

“We are protesting the corruption, the collusion, the nepotism, the concessions and job losses, the tier system and the temp system,” Keller said. He wants a special convention for new leadership to be voted under one-member, one-vote standards instead of the use of delegates.

Omar Guevara, a UAW Local 22 member and GM Detroit-Hamtramck assembly worker,  held his "Take back our sold out house" sign as he marched in protest of union leadership.

"We are pushing to stop contract talks right now until we can get a new body in there," he said. "That's what we need to do because we can't trust anybody... because they've known about it. If you knew about it you are just as guilty."

In a show of defiance, the group marched alongside representatives that included Jones as well as leadership of UAW Region 1, squaring off with them at some points. They called out the union leadership and demanded reform. Jones kept walking in the middle of other UAW leaders as the dissidents shouted in protest.

In a sign of unity and strength against the dissidents, those gathered around the president chanted back: "Who are we? UAW!" and "Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong!"