Leadership unclear as UAW faces its 'most critical moment'

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

It is unclear who will lead the United Auto Workers in the middle of a corruption crisis following the resignation of embattled President Gary Jones, accused by the union's executive board of filing false invoices.

Acting President Rory Gamble continues in his role for now, spokesman Brian Rothenberg said. But the union's executive board must vote on a replacement to finish out Jones' four-year term now that he has resigned, according to the UAW constitution. A date has not been set yet.

Then-UAW Vice President Rory Gamble speaks during the first day of contract talks with Ford Motor Co. in July, 2018. Gamble took over as acting president earlier this month when former president Gary Jones was placed on leave Nov. 2. Jones resigned earlier this week.

Whoever is the next president must restore integrity to the UAW, experts say. A four-year federal investigation has produced 10 convictions and charges against 13, implicating the UAW's former top leaders, including Jones and his predecessor, Dennis Williams. And that's threatening to put the union that historically has boasted a well-respected reputation under federal oversight.

"In terms of international administration, international politics, this is the (union's) most critical moment," said Mike Smith, former director of Wayne State University's Walter P. Reuther Library. "This is totally unprecedented. The new president has to stand up and say, 'This is a serious bump in the road, but we're going to take care of it.'"

But some UAW members say that is a steep order: "I don't feel like I can trust the international union," said Jonathon Mason, a 43-year-old production worker at Ford Motor Co.'s Dearborn Truck Plant. "Everybody in that office saw or heard what was going on and they turned a blind eye to it."

Gamble took over the duties of Jones when he went on paid leave Nov. 10. The board had to choose his replacement from the secretary-treasurer or the three vice presidents leading the department for each of the Detroit Three, Rothenberg said. Now that Jones has resigned, the board can select any member who has been in good standing for at least one year to fill the term ending in June 2022.

Gamble still may be the obvious choice, experts said.

"They wouldn't have chosen him as acting UAW president if someone else is better," said Art Wheaton, an automotive industry specialist at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School.

Gamble is the first African American to be named UAW president. He has not been implicated in an ongoing federal investigation, and last week introduced reforms he planned to implement in response to the corruption identified in the federal probe. They include the creation of an officer position to investigate ethics complaints, a commitment to seek recovery of misused and misappropriated funds and other monetary controls.

"That is pretty fast by UAW terms to be moving," said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "This is a big ship. It steers slowly."

Gamble led the negotiations of the contract that UAW members employed by Ford Motor Co. ratified earlier this month. A tentative agreement was reached in just three days. Labor talks with the last of the Detroit Three, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, are ongoing.

"Job No. 1 is going to be ratification at Chrysler," Wheaton said. "That’s not an easy task. It was always going to be difficult."

Should the executive board decide to go in a different direction, other possibilities for the presidency include Region 1A Director Chuck Browning, Secretary-Treasurer Ray Curry, and Vice Presidents Terry Dittes and Cindy Estrada.

More: Here's who could replace Gary Jones as UAW president

Some members, however, believe the union should look beyond Solidarity House, said John Barbosa, a 49-year-old team leader at Fiat Chrysler's Dundee Engine Plant.

"In order to get rid of that corrupt culture, you have to build a new culture of honesty and transparency," Barbosa said. "That starts with removing anyone that has been associated has any ties to the current leadership."

The Detroit News on Wednesday first reported that Jones was resigning. It came less than an hour after all 12 members of the executive board signed Article 30 charges against Jones and Vance Pearson, UAW Region 5 director, in an effort to expel them from the union. Pearson is on paid leave and has until Dec. 5 to form a defense before a trial committee, according to the UAW constitution.

When asked if Jones will continue to receive his pension and other benefits, the UAW referred to a 1990 Supreme Court decision that an employer cannot withhold an employee's pension. The government through restitution can.

Jones has not been charged by the government. When he went on paid leave, Jones agreed to reimburse the union for pay received while on leave should he be convicted in connection with the federal corruption investigation, a source familiar with the situation previously told The News.

Jones and Williams also sit on the 11-member governing committee for the independently operated UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust fund. It is the caretaker for 650,000 UAW retirees' health care benefits. The UAW is in the process of preparing and submitting a formal notice needed to remove Jones and Williams from the governing committee, representatives for the UAW and the trust said. The UAW has not determined who will replace them, Rothenberg said.

FILE — Former UAW President Gary Jones gives his first speech on the final day of the UAW constitutional convention at Cobo Center in Detroit on June 14, 2018.

Jones also is one of 35 members of the board of directors for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. The state's largest health insurer has more than 6 million customers, including thousands of autoworkers. Jones joined the board May 22, and directors serve three-year terms.

"His eligibility is not determined by his employment," Helen Stojic, a spokeswoman for the Detroit-based nonprofit mutual insurance company, said in an email about Jones. "He has not resigned from our board."

No UAW president has ever resigned from the union, said Smith of the Reuther Library. But moving to replace a sitting president isn't unprecedented: In 1938, the UAW's board ousted Homer Martin for making deals in secret with automakers. It selected R.J. Thomas to replace him.

And after Walter Reuther died in a plane crash in northern Michigan in 1970, the union's board chose Leonard Woodcock to replace the famed labor leader.

But given the cloud of corruption over the union, whoever is chosen as the new president will step in at a time when there is a "crisis of leadership," Smith said. "The next president, should it be Rory or someone else, must rebuild trust with the membership."


Twitter: @BreanaCNoble