Howes: Beyond UAW rhetoric, pressure builds for deal with GM
Behind the United Auto Workers' weekend rhetoric decrying a lack of "basic decency" and professionalism from General Motors Co. is growing pressure on union bargainers led by President Gary Jones to reach a tentative agreement with the automaker — and get out of the way.
Letters last week from the heads of the UAW's Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV departments signal growing impatience as the longest national strike against GM since 1970 moves into its fourth week. The longer the walkout runs, the more bargainers will be expected to deliver a package justifying their members' lost pay and financial pain to their employer.
"We now have 18 out of 20 subcommittees that have reached tentative agreements or have negotiated to the point that only patterned or large economic items remain open for discussion," wrote UAW Vice President Rory Gamble, head of the union's Ford department.
A day later, Vice President Cindy Estrada, head of the union's FCA department, wrote that "some of the committees are close to completing to the point where the only issues left are economic or patterned that will be resolved once the UAW-GM negotiations are settled."
These are the same UAW vice presidents who used a meeting of the union's International Executive Board to question whether their teams would bargain with their respective companies if Jones remained president, four sources with knowledge of the situation told The Detroit News. The exchange came less than three days before 46,000 UAW members walked off their jobs at GM Sept 16.
Since then, Gamble and Estrada appear to have accelerated the bargaining process with their respective companies. One byproduct would be to minimize, if not eliminate, the embattled union president from their separate talks, a move more easily achieved once Jones and UAW Vice President Terry Dittes reach an agreement with GM that sets the pattern on major economic issues to be applied at all three automakers.
Jones has been implicated in the continuing federal investigation into union corruption, as has his predecessor, Dennis Williams. Neither of them has been charged. But Jones' longtime aide, Region 5 Director Vance Pearson, has been charged in a complaint, and only last week — under pressure from two former UAW public relations directors, among others — did the union place Pearson on leave.
"This head-in-the-sand posture is unacceptable to us, and it should be unacceptable to all active and retired UAW members and to concerned citizens everywhere," the Rev. Peter Laarman and Frank Joyce, former UAW PR directors, wrote in a commentary. "It is time for radical remediation."
There are no outward signs yet of that happening. Eleven people have been charged and nine convicted in the federal corruption probe centered first in the joint-training centers funded by the automakers before moving into alleged fraud and theft of union dues money.
Jones survived an attempt to remove him from office during a Sept. 13 meeting. 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. The News subsequently confirmed "Official A" to be Jones and "Official B" to be Williams.
Among the concerns circulating among current and former union leaders is that the implication of Jones in the corruption investigation makes him a liability in bargaining because his credibility is effectively nil. It also undercuts his ability to lead, compromises his standing to champion reform and exposes the union to potential federal oversight.
Jones' predicament is not likely to improve with time. That's one reason folks are quietly speculating the UAW president will take a much lower profile in subsequent "main table" talks with Ford and FCA after he and Dittes set the pattern with GM amid a continuing leadership crisis.
The stakes are high. With the strike now beginning its fourth week, costs to all sides are escalating. And they could escalate further if the GM membership fails to ratify any deal produced by Jones & Co., in part out of suspicion their leaders are distracted by mounting legal troubles they created.
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.