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Amid pressure, UAW says Gary Jones is still president

United Auto Workers President Gary Jones survived an attempt to remove him from office during a high-level meeting Friday, one day after he was implicated in a scheme to embezzle union money.

"The meeting's over," UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg confirmed. "There's no changes. Gary Jones is the president of the union."

But it was unclear Friday how long Jones would remain in office amid mounting pressure from the top ranks of the UAW, local unions across the country and the widening federal investigation into union corruption.

United Auto Workers region 1 director Frank Stuglin, left, and region 1A director Chuck Browning walk back into toward the entrance of the Westin Detroit Metropolitan Airport hotel after taking a break from a meeting of high-level UAW officials around 4 p.m. Friday afternoon, September 13, 2019.

The closed-door meeting of the UAW's International Executive Board at the Westin Detroit Metropolitan Hotel, according to four sources familiar with the situation, was the first public indication that Jones might not survive the scandal that already has produced nine convictions and embroiled several eras of top UAW leaders.

The sources said a faction of the union's governing board appears to be pushing to remove Jones, to preserve the union's autonomy and to preempt a potential government takeover of the UAW.

On Friday afternoon, two board members, Region 1 Director Frank Stuglin and Region 1A Director Chuck Browning, were spotted walking into the airport Westin after a break. After the meeting broke up, Jones’ driver and others physically blocked an Associated Press reporter from trying to approach him to ask questions.

The 14-member board — composed of the union's regional directors, three vice presidents, secretary-treasurer and president — is the union's governing body. It has the power to initiate a trial of officers with the potential to reprimand, suspend or remove them, according to Article 30, Sections 1 and 13 of the UAW constitution. 

“I think there’s a sense that even if he is innocent, they don’t want a sitting president who could be indicted,” said Erik Gordon, a University of Michigan business professor. “It should be pretty clear the government is going after him. How high does the government want to go or think they can go? Jones. That’s how high.”

The meeting came roughly 32 hours before the union's contract deadline with General Motors Co., its target company, that is set to expire Saturday night, potentially sending 46,000 hourly workers to the picket line. The widening criminal investigation, marked by Aug. 28 raids at the homes of Jones and former president Dennis Williams, arguably complicates the most consequential negotiations since the bankruptcies a decade ago of two Detroit automakers.

UAW leaders gathered one day after a federal criminal complaint and accompanying affidavit implicated Jones and Williams in a widening corruption conspiracy that embezzled more than $1 million of member dues on Palm Springs villas, steakhouse dinners, more than 100 rounds of golf, cigars and $400 bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne.

Meanwhile, negotiations with GM have slowed to a virtual standstill, according to a source familiar with the situation, as bargaining teams from both sides await to learn the results of the UAW leadership meeting. The union granted contract extensions to Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV Friday to turn its attention to GM amid deepening turmoil.

"To have essentially corrupt people running the union does nothing to keep the union relevant," said Chris Vitale, 46, a 25-year veteran UAW member who tests vehicles at Fiat Chrysler's Auburn Hills headquarters. "I despise what they've done. Quite honestly until the federal government is involved in cleaning up that (international) union and authorizing every check that gets written, that union's not gonna be clean."

As the federal corruption investigation targets increasingly high-ranking officers, UAW members and leaders worry about the impact the ongoing federal investigation will have on negotiations and details of the next four-year contract. 

Members are anxious about the future of their plants, job security, wages increases, maintaining health care benefits. Their concern over the investigation deepened this week after The Detroit News confirmed that Jones is an unnamed union official accused in a criminal case of helping orchestrate a years-long conspiracy that involved embezzling member dues. 

"It destroys the integrity of our organization and what we are all about. In some ways it doesn’t weaken our bargaining power, but it weakens the loyalty and the trust which we need from the membership," said Rich LeTourneau, shop chairman of the Local 2209, which represents about 4,000 members at the GM's Fort Wayne Assembly Plant.

Nine people — including five union leaders and the wife of a deceased vice president — have been convicted in the corruption investigation focusing on how leaders used automaker-funded training center accounts and dues money contributed by members.

UAW Region 5 Director Vance Pearson on Thursday was charged with embezzling union funds, mail and wire fraud and money laundering. Pearson was involved in a years-long conspiracy that is alleged to have enmeshed Jones and Williams. Neither Jones nor Williams have been charged. 

Barring an extension not likely to be granted until Saturday afternoon at the earliest, the union's contract with GM expires at 11:59 p.m. Saturday. Reaching a tentative agreement would only be the beginning: leaders would need to get the deal ratified by members rattled by the federal investigation.

"Ratification was going to be tough even if this wasn’t going on," said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. "The members decide whether this is a good agreement or not."

LeTourneau in Fort Wayne believes his membership won't let the corruption investigation impact their decision on a contract — if it's good. But he says "in the long run they are going to want retribution as a result of these issues. International representatives should conduct themselves at a much higher standard."

In a statement posted on Facebook, UAW Local 249 President Jason Starr and Bargaining Chairman Jim Fisher — based in Pleasant Valley, Missouri, a part of the Region 5 once headed by Jones — wrote that they believe all those accused are innocent until proven guilty. But those proven to have violated the UAW constitution "should be punished to the fullest extent of the law."

"The damage these corrupt officials have caused to our union's reputation is devastating," they wrote. "It has negatively affected critical organizing drives and it sows distrust just as the deadline for the contract negotiations with the Detroit Three nears."

Contract concerns

Matt Moorhead didn't want to leave his native Howland in northeast Ohio, but the 47-year-old former GM Lordstown Assembly employee saw no other option after he signed the check to pay for his son's college tuition. He knew he had to accept a transfer to Grand River Assembly in Lansing, leaving his wife, son and daughter back in Ohio.

"The contract that was made with me I feel was breached," he said. "I should still be working in Lordstown. A lot us are displaced from our families and that's not right. That's not how you treat people that overachieve."

The Lordstown Assembly Plant is one of four U.S. facilities GM is moving to close. But union leaders have said they plan to fight to get product for those affected facilities.

In addition to securing jobs and more product, workers would also like to see a wage system that makes everyone equal. A GM worker with less than one-year experience makes $45,470 in total wages and bonuses and a worker with seven to eight years experience makes $99,363, according to a UAW/GM 2015 contract.

"I would like to see them take everyone to the first tier and get rid of all the tiers," said Terry Simms, 57, a GM Flint Assembly Plant assembly line worker. "Get rid of the tiers. You can’t have solidarity if you have a house divided, and our house is divided."

Ready to strike 

Members says they are ready to strike if necessary to get what they are fighting for but are also worried about how a strike will affect them financially. 

"I always tell them and I have been telling them for a year: 'Be prepared for the worst and hope for the best,'" said Randy Freeman, Local 652 president who represents workers at the Grand River plant. "Nobody wins in a strike."

Local UAW leaders are readying for a strike — from putting together tents and first-aid kits for the picket line to making sure food will be available at union hall as workers prepare to live off strike pay of $250 per week. The union increased the pay $50 at a special convention in March.

Hundreds of UAW staff and members are putting together signs and making other preparations at Local 2209 in Roanoke, Indiana, where GM’s Fort Wayne Assembly Plans produces the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks.

“They’re done and ready to go for strike duty, if it happens,” LeTourneau said.

Many of his members “are anticipating a strike. They’re wanting to go out. Hopefully, it may change the way management treats people. They have a whole new attitude of how they treat people. It’s like they lost sight that people are their most important asset.”

LeTourneau speculated his plant could be a strike target. The profit-heavy Silverado and Sierra’s inventory at dealerships is at 93 and 84 days respectively above a 64-day industry average for trucks, according to Cox Automotive.

"This would be a very critical plant," he said, "to take down right now."

Twitter: @bykaleahall

Staff Writer Breana Noble contributed.