Howes: Embattled UAW president Gary Jones faces mutiny threat

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Talks continue between the striking United Auto Workers and General Motors Co., but they may not at the automaker's crosstown rivals — not so long as Gary Jones remains president of the union.

In a meeting last Friday of the UAW's governing International Executive Board, the heads of the union's Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV bargaining committees questioned whether their teams would bargain with their respective companies if Jones remained president, four sources with knowledge of the situation told The Detroit News.

Gary Jones, president of the United Auto Workers, has been implicated in federal investigation into union corruption.

The brewing mutiny — delivered by Vice President Rory Gamble and Vice President Cindy Estrada, heads of the UAW's Ford and FCA departments, respectively — suggests a fissure is appearing in the union's 14-member governing board. One side believes the implication of Jones in a union corruption investigation makes him a liability in bargaining, undercuts his ability to lead and exposes the union to potential federal oversight.

A UAW spokesman, Brian Rothenberg, said Wednesday he "checked with the Ford negotiating team and the FCA negotiating team" and it's "not true" that they would not bargain with their respective automakers if Jones remains president. He did not elaborate.

For now, the potentially powerful protest would appear to be on hold as the UAW-GM bargaining committee under Vice President Terry Dittes continues talks with the automaker to reach a tentative agreement and end a national strike of 46,000 GM employees now in its fourth full day.

Jones survived an attempt to remove him from office during the meeting Friday. It came one day after a federal criminal complaint and accompanying affidavit implicated "UAW Official A" and "UAW Official B" in a conspiracy to embezzle more than $1 million of member dues and spend it on Palm Springs villas, steakhouse dinners, cigars, more than 100 rounds of golf and $400 bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne.

The News subsequently confirmed "Official A" to be Jones and "Official B" to be Dennis Williams, former president of the union. The narrative, shaped in an affidavit written by Labor Department Special Agent Andrew Donohue, is the latest chapter in a years-long case that so far has produced nine convictions and federal charges last week against UAW Region 5 Director Vance Pearson, a longtime deputy of Jones when he headed the same region.

The political maneuvering and rumors of high-level resignations are remarkable for an 84-year-old institution that prizes stability and vests enormous power in its president. It signals the toll the federal investigation is taking by upending careers, exposing wrongdoing, damaging the credibility of the union and many of its top leaders with members, the automakers and the public.

Would a faction of the union's governing board revolt against a sitting president? Maybe, if only to prove its mettle to members and perhaps emerge unscathed. Would Jones resign amid a national strike? Under union precedent, the obvious answer would be no. But the UAW leadership, elected to safeguard the interests of its 400,000 members, faces an unprecedented crisis that no strike can fix.

The strike temporarily diverts attention from the growing legal tangle enveloping top union leadership, especially Jones, whatever the economic numbers and job-security assurances the UAW seeks from GM. The challenge now for Jones and Dittes, director of the union's GM department, is reaching a tentative agreement with GM and persuading striking members to ratify the deal.

It's unclear how long Jones can withstand increasing pressure to resign. Factions on the governing IEB are debating his future. His longtime aide in Region 5, Vance Pearson, is scheduled next Tuesday to make an initial appearance in federal court in Detroit on charges that include embezzling union funds, mail and wire fraud and money laundering. 

And Jones — "UAW Official A" — is depicted in federal filings as an architect of the scheme to create a "Master Account" ultimately funded by UAW members to "conceal the true nature of how the union money was being spent." The affidavit also says "Official A" urged another UAW official to submit "false vouchers" to "conceal the expenses" from union accountants.

The alleged corruption is stunning. The extravagance of Cristal and cigars, the exclusivity of poolside villas rented for a month or more, the hypocrisy of spending $500 on two Titleist hybrid clubs — equivalent to a week's strike pay for two UAW-GM members manning a picket — should outrage folks who work hard, play by the rules and pay their dues.

Rebuilding trust doesn't come easily. The next president would need to demonstrate a clear break from the corruption of the past and a renewed focus on representing the interests of the members whose dues fund the union.

Jones is the least publicly visible UAW president in at least a generation. He doesn't champion left-wing political causes like Bob King, doesn't have NewsTalk 760-WJR's Paul W. Smith on speed-dial like Ron Gettelfinger, doesn't dispel the caricature of being a boring ol' chief accountant for the UAW (which means he can manage money).

The alleged scheming of Jones, Williams and Pearson, among others, is not just self-destructive. It poses an existential threat to the union Walter Reuther built, giving anti-union adversaries a huge rhetorical club to wield against UAW organizing efforts of foreign-owned automakers and in other industries.

If the union wants to survive, that must change — starting at the top.


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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.