Howes: UAW corruption probe validates legendary president's admonition

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Longtime UAW President Walter Reuther, shown here in 1941, warned against allowing union officials to oversee funds earmarked for the benefit of members.

Legendary United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther would be disgusted.

Forty-eight years after he and his wife, May, died in a fiery plane crash on the way to the union’s Black Lake recreational center, a posh home financed by a union nonprofit is rising on its shores for another former president, Dennis Williams. He retired in June.

It's a cabin in name only, judging by the pictures, floor plan and building materials. The Williams house is the latest revelation, detailed by The Detroit News, stemming from the continuing federal investigation into corruption atop the union and its company-funded training centers, particularly the UAW-Fiat Chrysler National Training Center.

The mounting charges, plea deals and inquiries mostly point in one direction: with the exception so far of three executives at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, they show more than a couple of union high-level leaders and top aides enriching themselves with corporate funds earmarked for member training — exactly the kind of self-dealing Reuther feared.

As the union won more benefits in its post-World War II bargaining rounds — employer-paid health care, defined-benefit pensions and more — Reuther counseled against allowing fellow union leaders to manage funds earmarked for members. He feared they were trained to do no such thing, and that union leaders risked being compromised by access to such large sums. 

“And in the years ahead, this union must remain true to its commitment to the welfare and the well-being of our rank and file," Reuther said at UAW's convention in April 1970. "This union is not about Solidarity House; it is not about your local union headquarters; this union is about the men and women that we represent, and behind them their families.”

That's not so much what today's leadership looks like: the sum of factory-floor fears that officials elected today to protect and advance the economic interests of their members are instead protecting and advancing the economic interests of themselves with money set aside for the members.

It's a union nonprofit building a custom house for a past president; it's UAW officials, led by then-regional director-turned-UAW President Gary Jones, spending nearly $1 million in member dues on condo rentals, booze, food and golf at Palm Springs resorts; it's current and former union vice presidents being investigated for potential misuse of funds donated to their respective nonprofit charities.

It's a former president, Williams, accused by a former union official of encouraging officials to charge expenses to company-funded training center accounts to ease burdens on the union's strained budget. It's a retired vice president, Joe Ashton, the former head of the union's General Motors department, resigning his seat on GM's board of directors amid the federal investigation and a separate internal probe at GM.

Dues-paying members should be outraged. At the union's constitutional convention last June, Williams used his valedictory speech to tout the union's repaired finances and its growing membership. He reiterated that none of the misused cash in the joint-training center scandal came from union dues, a distinction that becomes less comforting (and less accurate) as the list of financial abuses grows.

"To be clear: those who misallocated or misused training center funds betrayed our trust," Williams told union members then. "The UAW has zero tolerance for corruption, wrongdoing, at any level of this organization."

The union brass has a funny way of showing it. The leadership's "few-bad-apples" narrative is being routinely contradicted by the continuing federal probe, by its filings, by the convictions and plea agreements in a case that is showing no sign of winding down or sparing ranking officials. 

Proving corruption of the bargaining process, one of the government's central contentions, may be immaterial if federal authorities can prove the corruption of key players and their misuse of union funds, whatever their source. Even if misuse of dues money is never implicated in the case, does that make the scandal any less corrupt?

There was a time when a federal corruption probe of the UAW would be front-page news around the country. Here's a cornerstone institution of the modern American auto industry, a co-creator of the American middle class and its expectations, witnessing too many of its leaders succumbing to the kind of greedy corner-cutting that short-changes members, undermines the union's credibility and reinforces the worst stereotypes.

Reuther called it, but some of his heirs refused to listen.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.