Howes: UAW scandal creates opportunity for its adversaries

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

For General Motors Co.’s 46,000 striking United Auto Workers members, the walkout now in its fifth full day is all about economics and job security. For just about everyone else, it’s about political opportunity.

Democratic presidential candidates are one-upping each other in a race to voice public support for striking auto workers, especially in the politically crucial states of Michigan and Ohio. Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee are asking their chairman to hold hearings into "brazen" UAW corruption, the union's unintentional gift to its adversaries.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is just one of many Democratic presidential candidates expressing support for striking United Auto Workers' members. Here she meets Wiley Turnage, president of Local 22 on the picket line around General Motors Co.'s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant.

And leaders at the highest level in the union are beginning to weigh who among them could step into the leadership breach and begin to rebuild the tattered credibility of Solidarity House should the federal criminal investigation into corruption force UAW President Gary Jones to resign.

If you wanna know the cost of corruption, far beyond the dollars and cents of embezzling member dues and joint-training center money, this is it. It’s becoming a political free-for-all at multiple levels that could imperil the union’s independence and irreparably tarnish its reputation among the public, the labor movement and its members.

For what? Golf clubs and trips to the zoo. Poolside villas and steak dinners. Cigars and $400 bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne. The smallness of it all, detailed in federal filings, is inversely proportional to the scale of the damage to the union's leadership and its standing with dues-paying members.

The UAW's rank-and-file, its legion of retirees and its supporters around the country can thank those already convicted or implicated in the widening investigation for opening the political floodgates to the UAW's traditional adversaries. House Republicans in Washington may not persuade a Democratic committee chair to hold hearings, but you can bet they'll make a lot of noise.

They wouldn't be alone. The "culture of corruption inside the senior leadership" of the UAW, as described by an assistant U.S. attorney, gives the union's critics ample evidence to wield against it — in organizing, by right-to-work advocates, anti-union Republicans, even members whose dues are alleged to have financed lavish entertainment and accommodations for the lucky leaders.

And the union's governance model is a relic of days long gone. Its 14-member International Executive Board acts as both management and a board of directors, meaning there is no independent body to oversee the people running the union. The model lacks the accountability valued in contemporary governance, vesting too much power in too few people.

It's all a gift to the union's critics, neatly wrapped by federal prosecutors whose crackdown clearly is targeting the top leadership and those who enabled them. Percolating in UAW circles are charges the investigation is politically motivated by the Trump Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Matthew Schneider, who the UAW rumor mill claims is eyeing a run for governor.

Even if he is, the people working for him have to deliver the goods — or they don't get convictions. They're nine-for-nine, a 10th has been charged, and the affidavit making the case against Region 5 Director Vance Pearson presents a detailed narrative bolstered by confidential witnesses.

"To be clear," U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, and Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina wrote Thursday, "the UAW is embroiled in a criminal investigation so serious that the union could be forced into federal oversight by the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act."

They also wrote: "Since 2017, federal investigators have uncovered more than a decade of rampant corruption among the senior ranks of the UAW, which has included money laundering, tax fraud, bribery and embezzling workers' hard-earned dues for lavish personal expenses."

The hypocrisy is staggering, coming from leaders claiming to protect their dues-paying members from the predations of corporate greed and excessive executive compensation. That, too, is a rhetorical weapon the union's leaders have handed to their detractors.

The shock waves of this federal crackdown are only beginning to reverberate. Smart Democrats spy potential peril where Republicans see opportunity. The coastal media, long disinterested in the building story because "no one cares," is coming slowly to a different conclusion.

People care, starting with the ones whose dues have been squandered by leaders living the good life with other people's money.

(313) 222-2106

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.