Howes: UAW 'flower funds' have long political pedigree

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Sixty-one years ago this month, legendary United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther told a U.S. Senate select committee that staff contributions to the union's so-called "flower funds" were voluntary, not compulsory -- a practice federal agents are once again investigating in connection with their corruption probe.

In March 1958, legendary United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther testified before the U.S. Senate’s “Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field.”

Among other things, senators wanted to know about the union’s “flower funds” — presumably antecedents to funds of the same name. They're under federal criminal investigation again in connection with the continuing corruption probe into the union and joint-training centers funded by Detroit’s automakers.

To hear Reuther tell it, in written testimony provided by the UAW to The Detroit News in response to still-unanswered questions last week, a “flower fund is a purely internal political fund contributed voluntarily by members of our union at different levels ... for the purpose of financing the political fights in the union.”

The funds were intended to finance "this terrific fight in our union" with communists in the wake of World War II "and we finally kicked them out," the union president testified. "The only way we could meet that challenge was for people in the union to dig into their own pockets and raise these funds we are talking about. That is how we did it." 

Then as now, the feds wanted to know whether contributions to the funds were voluntary or compulsory, a job requirement that arguably would be akin to extortion. “Are any assessments made against the individual with regard to this fund,” asked Sen. Carl Curtis, a Nebraska Republican. “They are not,” Reuther replied.

“Every dollar that is in these funds is a purely voluntary matter. There is no regularity. There is no fixed amount. It is a voluntary matter, and, therefore, there are no assessments. Not all of our staff members contribute. This is not a compulsory thing,” he continued, adding more than once: "We have nothing to hide." 

Federal agents today suspect otherwise, The News reported last week. Sixty-one years after Reuther testified on the funds before a committee whose members included Michigan Sen. Patrick McNamara and a future U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, the feds again are investigating whether senior union staffers were forced to make contributions to flower funds or risk being reassigned to assembly lines, and whether union executives pocketed some of the cash.

That today's union leadership is content to use congressional testimony given by its most beloved former president to answer questions about the funds bears the hallmarks of a heavily lawyered institution whose leaders are under siege. How the financing of the funds morphed — or didn't — since Reuther's day is likely to loom large in the case.

One such fund is called the "Members in Solidarity Fund," founded in Missouri in 1991. According to state documents acquired by The News, "the objects of this association shall be to advance the interests and welfare of its members ... to provide flowers for the sick and to the families of deceased members and to friends of the club," among other charitable and social causes.

A biennial registration report for 2017-2018 filed with the Missouri Secretary of State, the most recent publicly available, lists the fund's president as Gary Jones. He's the former director of St. Louis-based UAW Region 5, stretching across 17 states from Missouri to California, who ascended to the union's presidency last June.

"We think this is the right way to do it," Reuther told the committee. "And not spend union money. But what we think is being done here, all the talk about these things is just to try to create in the public mind that there are these big funds around here and maybe somebody is getting fat on them."

Six decades later, he's still right — with good reason. Prosecutors have tallied seven convictions in the sprawling case. Last week, federal authorities indicted a retired union vice president, Norwood Jewell. Federal agents also have expressed interest in Joe Ashton, a retired UAW vice president who headed the union's General Motors Co. department, and Cindy Estrada, who succeeded Ashton before replacing Jewell as vice president in charge of the union's Fiat Chrysler department.

Additionally, the feds are questioning the expenditure of nearly $1 million in membership dues on condominiums, liquor, food and golf in California, where Jones held annual conferences until becoming UAW president last year, sources confirmed to The News. And the government is exploring whether former President Dennis Williams directed his staff to use corporate funds earmarked for member training to pay for union travel, meals and entertainment.

Controversy surrounding flower funds has a long pedigree. Thirty years ago, the Labor Department launched a widespread investigation into whether UAW officials nationwide were misusing flower funds. That year, investigators issued 24 subpoenas for documents and financial records related to the funds, but the investigation did not yield criminal charges.

Whether they do this time will depend on how closely today's union leaders hew to Reuther's advice, or ignore it and pay a price ultimately to be shared with their rank-and-file members.

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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.