Howes: Corruption probe into UAW complicates ratification push
For the past 32 days, the specter looming over the longest United Auto Workers strike against General Motors Co. in nearly 50 years has been the federal investigation into union corruption.
Would the fact that union President Gary Jones has been implicated in the continuing probe, that his Canton home had been raided by the feds, be an impediment to ratifying what looks like a pretty rich deal? He has not been charged, but we’re about to find out.
Union leaders clearly have taken steps to bridge Jones' yawning credibility gap. They're relying on broader representation at the bargaining table and the 200-person UAW-GM National Council at the tentative-agreement phase to compensate for their president’s tarnished reputation — unwieldy constructs that contributed to the glacial pace of bargaining.
They're keeping their more than 48,000 UAW-GM members walking the picket lines until next Friday. That's when leadership expects the tentative agreement with GM to be ratified, that members will warm to the planned education sessions on the deal and vote yes instead of complicating matters even more with a failed vote.
The apparent thinking: there's safety in numbers. A union that prides itself on its self-described democratic roots long ago vested enormous power in its president — power to appoint most of the members of the governing 14-person International Executive Board, and power to bigfoot contract talks and declare a tentative agreement reached whatever the bargaining committee's reservations.
Continuing to vest that power in an embattled president would be the triumph of arrogance over common sense. Folks on the factory floor have long suspected the leadership of being more interested in furthering their own financial interests than safeguarding the interests of dues-paying members.
The federal corruption probe that so far has produced charges against 11 and convictions of nine (three of them former executives of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV) only serves to deepen those suspicions. If the union wants its tentative deal to win ratification, minimizing Jones' overt presence to the extent possible is vital.
Jones was nowhere to be seen at the presser to announce a tentative agreement that will not end the strike — not yet, anyway. The absence would be mysterious if the reason for it wasn't so obvious: he doesn't want to face the media scrutiny that would quickly devolve into questions about his implication in the corruption scandal.
Too bad, because on the surface he and Vice President Terry Dittes, director of the union's GM Department, have something to crow about. Even if they failed to stem the closings of Baltimore Operations in Maryland, Lordstown Assembly in northeast Ohio and Warren Transmission in southeast Michigan, they rescued Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly and delivered a sweetened set of economics for members to consider.
The proposed tentative agreement is a big win for the UAW, in the near-term, anyway. It delivers 3% base-wage increases in two of four years, 4% lump-sum bonuses in the other two; eliminates the $12,000 cap on hourly profit-sharing, more tightly aligning the financial interests of UAW members with those of executives and shareholders; agrees to pay record ratification bonuses of $11,000, more than offsetting the wages lost to the month-long strike.
This is the kind of package the disappearing duo of Jones & Dittes needed to deliver to produce a glimmer of hope that attention could be diverted from the president's deepening legal jeopardy. It might work long enough to get a deal ratified and then shop it over to Dearborn and up to Auburn Hills.
But stymie the feds? Not likely. The crackdown on union corruption, and the investigation into joint-training centers funded by corporate dollars from the Detroit Three, is exposing a culture of self-dealing whose extent is not yet fully known.
To prove the point, the union's contract summary confirms plans to dissolve the jointly run UAW-GM Center for Human Resources, a move that presumably will be mirrored in upcoming contracts with Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. The UAW-GM building on the Detroit River will be sold.
Nor is it known just how much — if at all — Jones' prominent role in the unfolding federal narrative makes him a liability atop the union, or how it could undermine ratification. His absent public profile begins to answer the question.
And what it says isn't good.
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.