Howes: Federal corruption probe, mistrust fuel UAW-GM strike

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Detroit's seen strikes before, but not like the one set to start at 11:59 p.m. Sunday.

The United Auto Workers' national walkout from General Motors Co. facilities across the United States comes amid a deepening federal criminal investigation into the union's leadership and charges of bad-faith bargaining from both sides — so much so that the automaker is publicly detailing its proposal to the UAW.

Ten years after emerging from a federally induced bankruptcy that helped produce a string of record North American profits, the new GM and the UAW are poised to clash over dramatically different visions for the future and whether the two sides can get there together.

Eddie Mendoza, an employee at the GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant and UAW Local 22 member, walks the picket line in front of the plant Sunday afternoon.

GM's release of its proposal is a remarkable break from decades of protocol. The move implicitly suggests both frustration and the automaker's belief that the union leaders calling for the first nationwide strike in a dozen years are not telling their members or the public the truth about GM's offer or the conduct of negotiations.

Without providing numbers, GM's proposal attempts to answer key concerns aired by both union leaders and members: the fates of "unallocated" plants in Michigan and Ohio thought to be moving toward closure; job-securing investments in new products; increases in base wage rates or lump-sum bonuses; retaining the UAW's enviable health care coverage.

"All in all, we think this offer is very sound and strong with investments and job creation," Gerald Johnson, GM's executive vice president for global manufacturing, said in a video statement. "Inside our package, we've also offered wage increases and/or lump-sum increases for the life of this contract. Additionally, it has an enhanced profit-sharing formula in it as well. That's all on top of our nationally leading health care benefits that we've had for many years for our employees."

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More: Strike will hurt rank-and-file workers before GM, experts say

You can bet union leaders are not at all happy with GM's PR move. It will be seen as breaking a cardinal rule of UAW-Detroit Three bargaining: even if bargaining teams are aware of a proposal, management is not supposed to communicate directly with members, despite the obvious fact that the employees work for the automaker, not the union.

And you can bet that GM's brass is not keen to bargain a critical four-year contract, coming as sales and economic growth are slowing, with a union president implicated in the widening corruption investigation. It has, so far, claimed nine convictions and indicted Region 5 Director Vance Pearson, the one-time deputy of President Gary Jones when he headed the region stretching from Missouri to California.

Where was Jones, anyway, on Sunday when the union he leads confirmed its intention to strike GM? Missing in action, again, leaving Vice President Terry Dittes, head of the union's GM department, to announce plans to send 46,000 UAW-GM members to picket lines.

A profile in courageous leadership it wasn't for Jones, who made a cameo appearance at this year's annual Labor Day parade that also attracted hecklers critical of the union president. Just days before, federal agents raided the homes of Jones and his predecessor, Dennis Williams, both of whom The Detroit News reported to be "UAW Official A" and "UAW Official B" in the affidavit explaining the indictment of Pearson.

That doesn't instill confidence. Given the narrative of corruption detailed in the latest government filing — and the alleged roles of Jones and Pearson, to name two — UAW-GM members should consider picketing Solidarity House instead of the automaker that pays them.

If the government can prove its allegations against Pearson in federal court, the "greed" so frequently ascribed to corporations like GM will belong to UAW leaders ostensibly elected to represent working men and women — not to use member dues money on rental villas in California, clothes, cigars, golf clubs, rounds of golf at prominent West Coast courses and $400 bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne.

Where does such brilliant leadership leave the rank-and-file? Wondering what the feds might have on Jones, if anything, and when it might become public; whether GM's proposal is as real as advertised; how long they'll be walking picket lines; and what a strike will mean to bottom lines — theirs, the union's and GM's.

The government will be watching, too. Jones survived an attempt Friday to remove him as president, but it's unclear how long he will remain in office amid mounting pressure from the top ranks of the UAW and local unions, automakers and federal investigators.

Striking GM facilities across the country may divert attention from the corruption probe, and it might distract the news media as reporters chase the usual strike stories. But it won't change the fact that the feds' corruption investigation is increasingly aimed at the top of the UAW, and the feds haven't lost one yet.


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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.