Howes: UAW leadership's credibility evaporating with new charges

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The United Auto Workers and General Motors Co. are hurtling toward a midnight Saturday deadline for reaching a tentative agreement. But they arguably shouldn't be negotiating at all right now amid a federal criminal investigation into union leadership that is widening daily.

More: UAW presidents Jones, Williams implicated in probe

The indictment Thursday of Region 5 Director Vance Pearson on charges of embezzling union funds, mail and wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy moves the case one step closer to UAW President Gary Jones. A former deputy of Jones, Pearson's legal problems follow federal raids last month of the homes of Jones and his predecessor, Dennis Williams.

United Auto Workers President Gary Jones fist-pumps an acknowledgment at opening of contract talks in July with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

With each passing day, the credibility of the union's top leadership and the UAW's reputation as a "clean union" is evaporating — with the union's rank-and-file, with automakers and with its "target" company, GM. Its efforts to negotiate a new four-year contract with the union have been stymied by continually escalating legal distractions weighing on the UAW leadership.

"GM is outraged and deeply concerned by the conduct of union officials as uncovered by the government’s investigation and the expanding charges revealed today," the automaker said in statement. "These serious allegations represent a stunning abuse of power and trust. There is no excuse for union officials to enrich themselves at the expense of the union membership they represent."

If the government's allegations in the indictment of Pearson prove only half right — the feds so far are nine-for-nine on convictions in their corruption crackdown — why should Team Jones even be negotiating on behalf of members whose dues are alleged to have been squandered on boondoggles masquerading as conferences?

The 40-page complaint filed against Pearson details a years-long scheme with other ranking UAW officials to spend union money on rental villas in California, clothes, cigars, golf clubs, rounds of golf at prominent West Coast courses and such booze as Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne.

Yes, the latest allegations are centered in Region 5, the sprawling patch stretching from Missouri to California. Couple those with the convictions associated with the UAW joint-training center funded by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and what emerges is a national web of alleged corruption fueled by corporate dollars and member dues, depending on which particular pot is getting raided.

Conventional wisdom going into the final week of the current four-year contract held that a strike against GM was more likely than not. Because the automaker is moving to close four U.S. plants; because GM is the most profitable of the Detroit Three; because the (some) union members are spoiling for a fight.

With the latest revelations, and the likelihood of more to come, UAW-GM members could be forgiven if more than a few of them would prefer to strike their leadership. If federal prosecutors get convictions on the latest round of charges, the union's penchant for blaming the mess on "a few bad apples" will be exposed as the Big Lie it is.

That should go over well with the troops. Ordering 46,000 members at GM to strike their employer would look like a cynical diversion reminiscent of the movie "Wag the Dog." The risks to both sides would expand exponentially because ending a walkout with a consensual deal is more difficult that starting one, especially now.

The cost to the leadership's credibility would be immeasurable. The union's International Executive Board is said to have discussed taking more visible steps to distance the union from the leaders implicated in the expanding case, but those discussions have been mostly inconclusive. That should change, today.

As the union leaders prepare to meet Sunday to weigh their options — whether to extend the contract and for how long, whether to call a strike and where, whether to use union janitors to squeeze facilities where they work — one overriding concern looms largest: can they get striking members to ratify a new contract and get back to work?

Traditional assurances from ranking leaders no longer apply. Expecting UAW members to overlook the growing mountain of evidence marshaled by federal investigators — and the nine convictions in the years-long case — is the triumph of hope over common sense.   

Which means that just because leaders says they’ve reached a good deal for the members doesn’t make it so. And, second, voting no on ratification may be the only way members can express their displeasure with and suspicion of their so-called “international leadership.”  

This is a mess of the UAW's making, a ripoff of corporate dollars and member dues that is staggering in its arrogance. And it needs to be cleaned up — fast.


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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.