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Jones breached trust, showed need for reforms, say UAW members

Breana Noble Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

United Auto Workers members expressed mixed emotions Thursday after hearing their former president, Gary Jones, had been charged with embezzling more than $1 million in member dues, racketeering and income tax evasion.

Disappointed, angered, pleased, happy, sad — and more described the reactions of rank-and-file members who spoke with The Detroit News after the U.S. attorney detailed federal charges against the 63-year-old labor leader.

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"I'm relieved and I'm ecstatic, but also I'm frustrated to know that it's just another person that was supposed to represent us, the membership, and they were basically stealing from us," said Raymond Jensen Jr., 47, a 21-year UAW member at General Motors Co.'s Tonawanda Engine Plant in Buffalo, New York. "But it's definitely a step in the right direction."

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Jones is the highest-ranking official to be charged in the five-year federal corruption probe that has secured 13 convictions and tainted the reputation of the once-clean labor union. The criminal information filing indicates Jones will plead guilty and is cooperating with the federal investigation into union corruption that he had helped to orchestrate, according to prosecutors.

"I feel vindicated," said Johnny Pruitte, 61, a member of Local 276 in Arlington, Texas. Pruitte was president of the local when Jones was director of Region 5 before becoming president. Jones had requested Pruitte's local hold a golf tournament to raise money for his charity, the 5 Game Changers Charity Fund, that investigators have scrutinized.

"He personally breached my trust, so I’m glad he’s getting what he’s getting,” Pruitte said. “To have him come to our local and propagate all this stuff he wanted us to do and we bought it hook, line and sinker."

At the top of many members' minds: what the downfall of Jones means for the future of their union. Many said they fear the filing brings the government one step closer to bringing a civil racketeering lawsuit against the UAW to assert control over the union as it did more than 30 years ago with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which exited federal oversight last month after more than three decades.

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider pointed to the consent decree with the Teamsters that implemented "one member, one vote" elections of international leaders and government oversight as a possible solution for the UAW.

"We have a long-term systemic problem with the union," he said. "We have corruption within the union. It's not just about the presidents. It's about the workers below the presidents, not the people working the jobs, right? It's the leadership. That is a real indicator there is a larger problem and that is why we haven't taken government oversight off the table."

Jonathan Mason, 43, a five-year UAW member at Ford Motor Co.'s Dearborn Truck Plant, thinks that could be good for the union: "I think they're going to take over the union, and hopefully, they can root out that type of behavior. As long as they do that, it's good."

But others fear government oversight could be even less responsive to the rank-and-file.

"I want to see all these criminals brought to justice, but I'm not thrilled about the government oversight," said John Barbosa, 49, a nearly 15-year UAW member at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's Dundee Engine Plant. "I don’t trust that they would do what’s in the best interest of union members at all."

The federal government's expertise is not in running labor unions, said Art Wheaton, an automotive industry specialist at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School.

The charges against Jones are "another breach of trust for the membership," Wheaton said. "It's another argument to be made for transparent, general democratic elections, open elections that could be run by the (National Labor Relations Board) or a federal agency. It still to me is not an indication that the NLRB must take over. It's not organized crime. There's not a threat of violence."

A growing rank-and-file movement seeks to use Article 8 of the UAW constitution to call for a special convention in order to amend the document for the implementation of "one member, one vote" elections instead of the delegate-based system the union currently has. Democratic elections, the founders of the Unite All Workers for Democracy movement hope, would help to avoid a government takeover and rid the union of corruption by making them directly accountable to the members.

Jones' charges "just reinforces the fight that we’ve been pushing to put control in the hands of the membership," said Scott Houldieson, 58, a 30-year UAW member at Ford's Chicago Assembly Plant who helped to found the grassroots movements.

In a statement, the UAW said it is "continuing to implement the critical reforms necessary to ensure our union is free from the type of corrosive corruption we have witnessed from those who betrayed our trust."

But Attorney Schneider indicated he is "unimpressed" with the announced reforms and that he has not seen the "full-on cooperation" he would like from the union.

"We should be doing everything we can as a union to avoid a federal takeover," said Jensen from Buffalo. "Let them find the people involved in this. If you're guilty, you're guilty. If not, then you don't have anything to hide."

bnbole@detroitnews,com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble