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UAW honors Gamble with commemorative pens from China

Detroit — The United Auto Workers gave workers promotional pens to commemorate President Rory Gamble that appear to betray a central tenet of the UAW's contracting process and of the union itself: They're made in China.

UAW members received the blue-and-gold pens emblazoned with the union logo, Gamble's name and the word "China" during the union's National CAP Conference this week in Washington, D.C. The annual event, which gathers members to discuss the union's legislative and political priorities while lobbying congressional leaders, drew more than 1,000 attendees and was intended to serve as a coming-out party for Gamble, but he did not attend due to unspecified health issues.

The United Auto Workers bought promotional pens made in China to commemorate new President Rory Gamble amid an investigation into whether labor leaders received bribes and kickbacks from promotion company executives.

“I’m appalled. Are you serious?” said Meoshee Edwards, a 23-year UAW member who works as a team leader at General Motors Co.’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant. “They’re always pushing for us to have American-made stuff even down to the Halloween candy. For our union to be handing out that, that’s kind of hypocritical, you know?"

In response, a union spokesman, Brian Rothenberg, said: "The UAW agrees. The UAW bid process and contract requires these items to be from union-made U.S. facilities. The manufacturing company made this mistake and the UAW immediately pulled the pens from distribution and notified the company when we found out this was done."

The pens represent yet another controversy for the UAW and come three months after Gamble was tapped to replace Gary Jones, who is accused of embezzling union funds. In December, U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider faulted the union for failing to cooperate with the investigation, saying he was unimpressed with Gamble's reform efforts and that federal oversight of the UAW was an option once investigators determine the depths of corruption.

And last month, The Detroit News exclusively reported that federal agents were probing financial ties between Gamble, retired Vice President Jimmy Settles and one of the union's highest-paid promotions vendors.

The pens are stamped with the word "China" on the clip and were distributed amid a corruption investigation that has led to the convictions of three former UAW officials, including Vice President Joe Ashton, for taking bribes from promotions vendors.

Promotional merchandise, including UAW-branded pens, shirts and bags, is a focus of one aspect of the federal crackdown on UAW corruption that will reach a new milestone Friday. That's when former UAW Region 5 Director Vance Pearson is expected to plead guilty after being charged with embezzling union funds and participating in a racketeering enterprise that prosecutors say includes Jones and retired President Dennis Williams, who have not been charged with wrongdoing.

Vance Pearson

The UAW urges the public to buy American-made products; publishes a shopping guide for purchasing everything from soup (kettles) to nuts; and posts signs at many union halls around the country, as well as its Solidarity House headquarters, warning drivers against parking foreign, nonunion-made vehicles in their lots.

The UAW ordered the pens from New Jersey-based Bankers Pen Inc., which used a letter dated Feb. 2 to describe the error that led to the pens including parts made in China — and to claim responsibility.

“It was our error,” Bankers Pen President Richard Danziger told The Detroit News. “It was processed incorrectly. It’s not something that would normally happen. It was pulled from the wrong inventory. Neither the distributor nor the UAW were involved. It was absolutely someone in my facility.”

He added the company had offered to replace the China-made pens that were a part of the roughly 2,000-pen order. Danziger was unsure if all of the pens were made in China. The UAW spokesman said he was checking to see how much the union paid for the pens.

“We got a phone call while they were in the middle of giving out product, and they realized there were China markings on the products,” Danziger said. “It’s not something that would normally happen. We have stock overseas and stock assembled here. The wrong stock was pulled.”

Danziger declined to share how much the UAW paid for the pens, though he said it paid the price for U.S.-assembled and decorated products that has a “substantial cost differential” from pens made in China. Further discussion around the payment for the incorrect product has not happened.

“We are willing to do whatever is necessary to make it right,” he said.

The UAW convention in Washington was held against the backdrop of the corruption probe. Federal agents are investigating whether UAW leaders received cash kickbacks or bribes in exchange for awarding lucrative contracts to Huntington Woods businessman Jason Gordon to supply union-branded merchandise, according to two sources familiar with the investigation.

Gordon's companies, including Southfield-based Custom Promotions, are part of the so-called "trinkets and trash" industry, a collection of companies vying for a piece of the more than $29 million spent in the last six years on promotion, advertising and UAW-branded items.

UAW bribery probe focuses on trinket deals

Trinkets and trash: A database of UAW spending on swag

His companies have supplied UAW-branded jackets, bags, hats and towels in recent years and been paid approximately $3 million by the UAW, its political action committee and Community Action Program councils since 2013, according to federal filings. That total includes nearly $54,000 from a CAP council in UAW Region 1A, the region headed by Gamble from 2006 until he became vice president and director of the UAW-Ford Department in 2018.

In a statement last month, Rothenberg said Gamble "can say he never took one red cent personally from Mr. Gordon or directly solicited anything from Mr. Gordon."

The UAW has been accused of hypocrisy amid a corruption investigation focused on whether union funds were embezzled and spent on personal luxuries for labor leaders.

Two years ago, the UAW was criticized for using nonunion labor to build a retirement home for Williams. Federal agents raided the home in August and three months later, Gamble announced the lakefront home would be sold as part of a broad series of reforms.

“If you’re going to preach ‘Buy American,’ then you should buy American. It’s certainly fair to ask if the UAW is living up to its ideals," said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. “Maybe don’t buy any more trinkets and trash. But by going to China, I suspect they got them much cheaper."

The corruption investigation has shown the UAW pays a steep markup for trinkets and trash. Ashton, the convicted UAW vice president who later served on the General Motors Co. board of directors, was accused of steering a nearly $4 million contract to his personal chiropractor for 58,000 watches and receiving $250,000 in kickbacks. The watches cost less than $2.3 million to produce, but the contract was for $3.97 million.

The lakefront home the UAW built for retired President Dennis Williams at the union's Black Lake retreat in Onaway features three bedrooms and a secret room hidden behind a bookshelf.

Jonathon Mason, a five-year production worker at Ford Motor Co.’s Dearborn Truck Plant, was disappointed to hear about the China-made pens:

“That is very sad. It’s a misrepresentation of who we are as a union. If we’re so set on being American-made and things of that nature, why would we have memorabilia made in China?" Mason said. "I’m sure they could have found a United States-based pen company. That’s not a reflection of us as an American organization.”

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews