As Teamsters exit government oversight, possibility looms over UAW

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

More than 30 years ago, the federal government was taking over the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to rid it of corruption, while the United Auto Workers was revered as squeaky clean.

The roles nearly have reversed. The Teamsters are exiting government oversight this week, closing an unprecedented effort to root out organized crime within the Washington, D.C.-based labor union. Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider is signaling the government remains open to pursuing a civil-racketeering case against the UAW amid a five-year federal investigation into union corruption.

Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa

"As Teamsters, we should've done this ourselves," Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa told The Detroit News in an interview Monday; he declined to comment on the UAW. "It's unfortunate it took us 30 years to get this done. It's been a positive overall experience in that it has brought democracy and a pledge to fight organized corruption forever."

Hoffa — the son of former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, who was convicted for his connections with the mob and later disappeared — said he believes government oversight could have been avoided. Leaders of a UAW rank-and-file movement calling itself Unite All Workers for Democracy hope to do just that by instituting direct elections of international officers. But ahead of a Friday deadline, the movement's leaders say their grassroots efforts will fall short of the needed support — this time.

"We didn’t see a path to getting the requested number of around 80,000 (members) before the deadline," said Scott Houldieson, a 30-year UAW member at Ford Motor Co.'s Chicago Assembly Plant. He wrote the Unite All Workers for Democracy resolution demanding a special convention be held to consider "one member, one vote" elections.

Scott Houldieson, an electrician at Ford Motor Co.'s Chicago Assembly Plant, wrote an Article 8 resolution calling for a special convention to amend the UAW constitution for the direct election of leaders.

Unite All Workers for Democracy has extended its deadline a year to Feb. 19, 2021, and restarted its efforts to gain support for a special convention that would be held May 24-26, 2021, in Detroit.

"We could’ve continued pushing with this deadline and then, once it failed, try to reboot," Houldieson said. "Or we reboot now and see if we can go back and get some of the others to go along with it."

The movement had been an unprecedented swell of action by members in rebuke of insufficient reforms by UAW leaders to address corruption amid the federal probe that has resulted in charges against 13 people, secured 12 convictions and implicated two former UAW presidents.

UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg reissued a statement saying the UAW continues to implement measures protecting member dues, noting changes to the current election system would require a constitutional change. Article 8 Section 4 of the document outlines how members or the governing International Executive Board could do so.

Twenty-five UAW locals and one local unit representing 51,000 members in 11 states from Massachusetts to Michigan to California had backed the reform group's original effort. That falls short of the needed locals representing at least 83,000 members — 20% of the UAW membership. The refreshed efforts already have the backing of Pleasant Valley, Missouri's Local 249, which has 7,436 members mostly at Ford's Kansas City Assembly plant.

'Positive step forward'

A similar movement erupted within the Teamsters before the government in 1988 filed a lawsuit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act against the union that represents truck drivers and other professions. The government alleged activities from embezzlement to murder. A consent decree abandoned the delegate system in favor of a direct referendum of members.

"It's brought democracy in that any member theoretically has the right to run now," Hoffa said.

Before the decree, it was the Teamsters for a Democratic Union movement that obtained 100,000 signatures in a petition drive calling for members' "right to vote," which delegates in 1966 rejected — a result, says Ken Paff, a national organizer for the movement, that showed the delegates were not representative.

Direct elections "had a very cleansing effect on corruption," Paff said. "Some of the fat cats ... they left, said, 'Goodbye,' if they had to be elected. Some of them have ran; some of them lost. Members don't want corruption if you're associated with it."

With government oversight complete, the Teamsters will no longer be on the hook for the millions of dollars it has spent on lawyers, a team of investigators and travel fees, Hoffa said. It must continue to pay for an independent election supervisor and maintain two independent ethics investigators, though it is up to the union to select those people.

Like all systems, direct elections have flaws, Paff said, acknowledging it favors incumbents with greater name-recognition and staffs from which to raise campaign funds.

"I think it's a positive step forward," Paff said. "I think it's made the union stronger and more accountable. You know your vote counts."

Voter turnout, however, has about halved over the years to 15% of the union's 1.4 million members in 2015.

"That’s disappointing," Hoffa said. "We’re going to do everything we can to increase votes. Democracy is only good if you use it."

UAW could face 'big step'

In the UAW, members elect delegates who participate in voice votes during constitutional conventions every four years to select international officers. For the past 70 years, the delegates have chosen candidates put forth by the Reuther Administrative Caucus for seats on the executive board with one single exception. All members of the union's current executive board are members of the Administrative Caucus.

The result is a one-party system, dissidents say, that has helped to foster what prosecutors call a "culture of corruption" in the union.

Direct elections would be the most transparent alternative, said Art Wheaton, an expert at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School.

"For the membership to have a voice, I think it’s better for a union," he said. "Even if they (the UAWD) don't win, having the opportunity to discuss it is a win."

Wheaton is wary of government control of the union, but said oversight of elections and audits could be beneficial. Experts agreed corruption within the UAW isn't as extensive as it had been in the Teamsters.

"That would be a very big step," Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, said about government oversight of the UAW. "I guess (the rank-and-file's actions) could sway the government if they see real reforms in the union. The Justice Department hasn't been very happy with the cooperation of the union, as (U.S. Attorney) Matthew Schneider has said."

UAW President Rory Gamble has introduced a series of sweeping reforms to address corruption. They include the creation of an ethics investigator, ombudsman and tipline, audits of union finances and the dissolution of Region 5. The reform measures are expected to be in place by the end of March, the UAW's Rothenberg said.

UAW President Rory Gamble.

Some members advocating for "one member, one vote" have said local leaders have spoken out against their effort, tried to call them out of order or scheduled meetings while some members were at work. General councils representing Ford employees at Local 600 in Dearborn and University of California graduate students at Local 2865 in Berkeley, California, voted down proposals, according to the UAWD. So did members at Local 598 in Flint, which represents employees at General Motors Co.'s truck assembly plant there.

But with a longer timetable and pipeline of supporters, UAWD leaders are hopeful about fomenting change in their union — if the government does not step in first.

Chris Budnick, a seven-year UAW member working in quality for Ford's Kentucky Truck Plant, is helping lead efforts to support a resolution calling for a special convention to institute direct elections of union leaders.

“We need to show that we can self-govern under our UAW constitution," said Chris Budnick, a seven-year UAW member at Ford's Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville. "It's about the membership taking our union back. That’s the reason for this movement for the members to engage to take the union back and make it more democratic.”

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

Detroit News Staff Writer Kalea Hall contributed.