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Eight United Auto Workers locals in five states are demanding a special convention to address corruption within the union, even as its new president is enacting sweeping reforms.

Most of the locals are backing a member-driven movement to institute direct elections of international union leaders, a change that likely would break the Reuther Administrative Caucus' decades-long monopoly on selecting candidates for top officer positions in a union that prides itself on its democratic heritage.

Growing rank-and-file support for reform is increasing pressure on UAW leaders to consider amending the UAW constitution to allow direct election of officers by rank-and-file members.

According to members, the move aims to impose more accountability, to restore the integrity of the union and to avoid government oversight, a possibility U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider recently told The Detroit News remains an option as a four-year federal investigation into the UAW corruption continues.

"We need to show the public we the members are doing everything we can to right the ship," said Kenneth Larew, a 23-year UAW member working the line at General Motors Co.'s Spring Hill Assembly in Tennessee. 

"What I don’t want to see is the public looking on, especially now, and saying, 'The people that work there don’t care. They’re just sitting back; they’re going to let more corruption take place and let the government takeover and do their dirty work for them and clean house.'

"We need to make a strong push now that we, the members of the union, are not going to stand for this. The only way to correct it is to make those leaders directly accountable to the people on the floor."

Larew says a majority of members at his amalgamated Local 1853 voted on Dec. 8 to support a resolution from the Unite All Workers for Democracy movement calling for a special convention under Article 8 Section 4 of the UAW constitution to amend the document. The change would require the "direct referendum elections" of the international union's leaders and increase fiscal transparency. Local 1853 President Tim Stannard did not return a request for comment.

One of the latest union halls to support the resolution on Wednesday is in Michigan — amalgamated Local 167 in Wyoming that represents General Motors Co.'s components holdings and Caravan Facilities Management LLC janitorial employees. Others who have tried in the UAW's home state have struggled to gain ground.

"It’s going to be a hard sell in Michigan; it was a hard sell at my local, as well," said Travis Watkins, a founder of the democratic coalition and Local 167 Caravan bargaining chair who introduced the resolution at his local where it garnered about two-thirds of members' support. "I hope it gives that momentum for others to say, 'If they can do it, maybe we can give it a shot here.'"

Time, however, is running short to support the resolution. The constitution requires majorities of 15 locals in five states that represent at least 20% of the membership to support a resolution before the union must hold a referendum vote on whether to have a special convention.  The UAW has 400,000 active members.

The resolution written by Scott Houldieson, a 30-year UAW member at Ford Motor Co.'s Chicago Assembly Plant, calls for referendum ballots to be mailed to local unions by Feb. 21 to hold the special convention in May.

"That's going to be problematic," Houldieson said. "We have a short time frame to work with, but we hope it encourages activists to have the Article 8 be brought up in their local union meetings."

Chris Budnick, a seven-year UAW member at Ford's Kentucky Truck Plant who also is helping to lead efforts, estimates locals representing more than 10,000 members have voiced support for a convention. That, however, does include Local 838 in Waterloo, Iowa, which voted to support its own resolution to hold a special convention to address corruption but does not demand the "one-member, one-vote" provision, Houldieson said. Local 838 President Tim Frickson declined to comment.

The other locals are backing Houldieson's write-up. A majority of voting members at New York City-based Local 1981, also known as the National Writers Union, approved it, said Brian Schneck, president of Local 259 in Hicksville, New York, who witnessed the vote Dec. 7 by video conference. Schneck's own local, which represents 1,400 dealership technicians, unanimously approved the resolution Dec. 12, he said.

When asked if the writers union had supported the resolution, President Larry Goldbetter in an email replied: "Are you saying that The Detroit News is interested in the struggle of rank and file union members to build a stronger, more militant union? Well, that would be a story in itself." He did not respond to follow-up emails and calls.

Local 1097 in Rochester, New York, and 2075 in Lima, Ohio, also have joined the movement, Budnick said. Representatives at the locals did not respond to request for comment.

The unions follow Local 774 in Buffalo, New York, that The News last month reported was the first to back Houldieson's resolution. The organizers behind the movement are the same ones who pushed for the removal from the union of President Gary Jones, who resigned the day the article on their efforts appeared in The News, and Region 5 Director Vance Pearson, who resigned shortly later.

The same day Jones resigned, the UAW's executive board brought charges under Article 30 of the UAW constitution against the officials, though Jones has not been charged by the government.

Federal prosecutors charged Pearson in September with embezzlement of union funds, mail and wire fraud and money laundering. An affidavit included in his criminal complaint implicates Jones as an unnamed official who helped orchestrate a conspiracy to embezzle more than $1.5 million in union dues and spend them on cigars, alcohol, private villas and other luxuries.

The executive board is "trying to make it look like they're doing something," said Raymond Jensen Jr., a 20-year UAW member at GM's Tonawanda plant who put forth Houldieson's resolution at the Buffalo local. "They want to steal our thunder. These are things that should have been done months, if not years, ago."

Houldieson's resolution also calls for the secretary-treasurer to publish the minutes of the executive board's meetings and a detailed quarterly financial report on the UAW's website. The resolution seeks to disconnect the salaries of international officers from the salaries of international representatives after doing so in June 2018 resulted in a 31% increase to the president's pay.

“The UAW is committed to continuing to make reforms that provide increased controls and policies to protect member dues," UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said in a statement. "Issues that require UAW Constitutional change would have to go through the process provided in the Constitution itself. Ultimately, the membership body makes these changes under the prescribed process for initiating, reviewing and voting on proposed changes.”

The executive board's efforts do come as Rory Gamble, officially named UAW president earlier this month after Jones resigned, announced a series of reform efforts ranging from hiring an independent ethics officer to issuing audits on the union's finances.

"We've got a lot of work ahead of us," Schneck said. "What I like about Rory is that he is set to retire in three years no matter what. He can be the guy to break the eggs and to leave the union better than he found it. On Article 8, I think it will help him while he is working with the international. It keeps him on his toes, too."

Additionally, the executive board is disbanding Region 5, which is ensnared in the federal probe. The region's dissolution avoids a special election for delegates to select a new leader of the 17-state region in the western United States.

"President Gamble has given it his best shot," Houldieson said. "It falls short as far as involving the members."

That is the problem he and other UAW members say they have with the current system electing international union leaders. The rank-and-file every four years elect delegates to represent them at a constitutional convention. The delegates vote for the leaders of the executive board and constitutional changes.

For more than 70 years, a majority of those delegates have elected the slate of candidates recommended by the Reuther Administrative Caucus. The Reuther caucus has hundreds of members and currently includes all members of the UAW's executive board.

"They don’t want to release their grip on that control," Houldieson said. "What we're pushing in our Article 8 resolution is designed to release the grip of that control and give it to the membership."

Houldieson has tried to gather support at his own Local 551, but votes on the resolution have failed to garner a quorum, the number of which is established by each local. Recent attempts at Local 723 in Monroe and Budnick's Local 862 in Louisville, Kentucky, which represents 14,000 members, also have failed to gather quorums.

"Some of the local leadership is concerned about challenging the administration," Houldieson said. "I think the effort, even if it falls short, is worthwhile. It’ll show that there is a reform movement afoot in the UAW. It may inform the U.S. attorney when they are seeking a consent decree."

Although Houldieson would rather see the UAW call a special convention and enact its own reforms, the government could implement direct elections like it did when it took control of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters 30 years ago.

But the government's threat might also help to enable the workers' efforts to reform their union, Spring Hill's Larew said. In the past, there was fear of what the international union could do if members and local leaders pushed against them.

"We have the space and time right now where we can make these actions without that fear," Larew said. "With the government watching and a lot of attention focused on them now, they wouldn’t dare fault anybody with that type of pressure. Now is the time to act."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

Staff Writer Kalea Hall contributed.

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