Federal corruption investigation tests UAW’s political clout

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The public image of the United Auto Workers is taking a pounding during contract talks thanks to a major federal corruption probe, but experts don't expect lasting damage to the group's formidable political clout — at least not yet.

The situation could change with new developments in the investigation, which has so far netted convictions for nine people, including a former Fiat Chrysler labor executive and union officials. 

The probe touched the highest levels of the organization recently when federal agents raided the homes of former and current UAW presidents Dennis Williams and Gary Jones.

The government's investigation of UAW President Gary Jones' financial dealings and use of members' dues could be used as a political issue by Republicans against the unions' Democratic supporters in Congress.

Neither man has been charged, though the government is investigating Jones over financial dealings involving his nonprofit charity and whether he or other union officials spent member dues on junkets in California, as The Detroit News has reported

Democratic officials aren't at the point of avoiding public appearances with union leaders, as several marched in last Monday's Labor Day parade in Detroit that included Jones. 

But if Republicans see the chance to tarnish rivals with the sins of their union supporters, they'll jump at it, said longtime political analyst Bill Ballenger, a former Michigan GOP state lawmaker.

"It's a little too early to be sure this is going to have a big political impact. The longer it goes on, and if it gets to the point where there's serious charges brought against Gary Jones, his predecessor or anybody else, it's going to be a factor," Ballenger said. 

"Republicans will use it, and certainly (President Donald) Trump will use it. And it's not going to be good." 

A GOP group tried that line of attack last week against freshman U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Holly Democrat who represents a Republican-leaning district Trump won in 2016.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, which is aligned with House Republican leadership, claimed that Slotkin had marched "right alongside" Jones and other top UAW officials in Detroit's parade. 

“Congresswoman Slotkin ran for Congress promising to return decency and integrity to politics, but just a few months in, and she’s already cozying up to groups under federal investigation for corruption, bribery and illegal kickback schemes,” CLF spokesman Calvin Moore said. 

But Slotkin told The Detroit News she didn't march alongside the UAW in the parade. She marched with the Operating Engineers union, and never even saw Jones, she said.  

She wasn't avoiding the UAW but did say the union needs to "have their house in order."

"It's never good when presidents and former presidents are having their homes raided. I don't have any knowledge of these cases in particular, but it's not good, and we can't accept it," Slotkin said.

"If you're someone who spends a lot of time with labor as I do, they have to have their nose clean. We have to make sure their membership knows no one is above the law. That goes for the biggest union in the state and the smallest union in the state." 

Slotkin said it's too early to know what kind of impact the probe could have on the union's long-term influence.  

Probe elicits few comments

Other lawmakers and elected officials aren't saying much on the record about the investigation so far, with several Democrats insisting they stand with UAW workers. 

"The strength and integrity of the UAW is really important for Michigan and for the working class of the whole country," said U.S. Rep. Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township.

"I stand with the union and with the members of the union. That's all."

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist stressed the continued hard work of the UAW in their jobs and representing workers' everyday issues. 

"When we talk about supporting the UAW, that's what we're talking about, and those are the people that I certainly will continue to partner with and serve as I am a public servant," Gilchrist said. 

Harley Shaiken, a labor issues specialist at the University of California at Berkeley, doesn't think the union's clout has taken a hit at this point, especially with current and former leadership cooperating with the investigation. 

"We've seen a lot of attention on the investigation, but it amounts to trial by innuendo at this point. We have no idea what charges there are or whether there will be charges based on this," Shaiken said. 

"All of this is entirely uncharacteristic of the history of the union. The charges are serious, and when they are brought in caught in a court of law, then we'll see what's going on." 

Where that innuendo could hurt is among rank-and-file workers who must ultimately ratify the national contracts being negotiated this month with the Detroit 3 automakers.

"It creates a climate of suspicion," Shaiken said of the probe. "If it’s a close vote, you don’t have to influence many people. So I’m not making light of the possible impact. It could be serious." 

Harm to public perception 

Harm to the public's perception could also be troubling for the union after generations spent building a reputation symbolizing progressive values and the rapid expansion of the middle class, and whose "savvy" at the bargaining table "was ultimately shared by millions of workers union and non-union alike," Shaiken said. 

"That reputation is damaged already just by the innuendo. Just by what it looks like," he said. "Ultimately how extensive that damage will be will be heavily influenced by what happens next."  

Democratic consultant Adrian Hemond expects little impact on the union's influence in the short term, unless leadership is implicated or bombshell indictments rock the organization. 

"Between this investigation that’s going on within the union and this contract they want to negotiate, they shouldn't have time" for political meetings, Hemond said.

"The optics would be really bad right now of trying to do political outreach. They need to focus on their contract. And if they get a decent contract for their members and none of the top leadership is implicated, then this probably largely blows over." 

But Art Wheaton, an auto industry expert and director of the Western NY Labor and Environmental Programs at the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said the probe has weakened the UAW in Lansing and Washington, though he couldn't point to any case examples of that impact. 

"Only because of the federal investigation and probes, it makes it a little less interesting for politicians to cozy up to UAW," Wheaton said. 

"When they show pictures of the FBI raiding the international president’s home and former president’s home, that’s not the kind of attention that elected officials want to be associated with. That doesn’t mean things won’t smooth out."

The UAW isn't a powerhouse by any means in terms of political contributions relative to other major donors, Wheaton said.

Its political action committee has donated about $5.85 million to candidates, party and other political committees since 2015, and its super PAC gave $4.72 million, according to disclosure reports. 

With 400,000 members, the union is better known for its ability to turn out volunteers to knock doors or work phone banks at election time, Wheaton said.  

Where the UAW could encounter real resistance after the probe is in its efforts to organize other workplaces, he said.

"That makes that job more difficult," Wheaton said. "In the public, it does hurt seeing UAW mentioned in the same phrase as an FBI investigation or raiding of the international president's house. Those kinds of things do get in the way.

"There are a lot of political lobbyists who are not favorable to unions that will use all of those those as leverage in the election campaign," he added.  

Ballenger said the scandal certainly doesn't bolster the arguments of those who claim that more labor unions are the answer to the wealth inequality gap in the United States. 

"It kind of blunts the argument that unions are a great thing if there’s a belief in the general public that union leadership is corrupt," he said. 

"This kind of falls in line with arguments by conservatives and pro-business critics of labor unions for a century or more that unions to a great extent are out for themselves and for the bosses at the top who run them and not for the workers." 


Staff Writers Beth LeBlanc and Sarah Rahal contributed.