Howes: As Jones steps aside, job one for UAW is restoring credibility

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
United Auto Workers President Gary Jones fires up delegates as he starts the chant, 'We Are One.' He is now on unpaid leave, implicated in the federal corruption investigation.

It's a start, but the United Auto Workers' move Saturday to give embattled President Gary Jones a paid leave of absence is hardly the end to his mounting legal troubles or the union's deepening leadership crisis.

The implication of Jones last week in fresh charges alleging he conspired to embezzle $700,000 in union dues, split them with an old Missouri pal and then lobby for the same guy to take the fall to protect the boss apparently is just too much for the union's governing International Executive Board. It's about time.

More: Here's who could replace Gary Jones as UAW president

More: UAW President Gary Jones goes on paid leave amid corruption probe

Interim President Rory Gamble and whoever becomes the next full-time president face an enormous task to restore UAW credibility destroyed by the selfish actions of its last two presidents and their cronies. And it's made all the more difficult by the simple fact that a growing number of senior leaders are becoming embroiled in the continuing federal investigation into union corruption.

Can a reformer in fact, not in word, really be expected to come from the people sitting today on the union's all-powerful IEB? Mostly not. They're the folks (or some, anyway) who tried to muster a rebellion against Jones just 40 hours or so before he ordered roughly 48,000 members to strike General Motors Co. last month, a walkout cynics considered a transparent effort to deflect attention from Jones and the union's "culture of corruption."

It worked only so long as the six-week GM strike lasted. With a UAW-Ford Motor Co. tentative agreement in hand and the union poised to turn to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV for the third and final contract, the union that Walter Reuther built is grudgingly, reluctantly coming to terms with the rot occupying the president's office under its current and most recently past occupants.

That it's taken this long — 12 charged, 10 convicted, the current president and his predecessor implicated — to move just a couple of bureaucratic inches exposes just how anachronistic the UAW has become. It's rooted in the the middle of the last century in a time of swift economic change, suspicion of institutions and perception shaped by social media operating at internet speed.

The legacies of Jones and his predecessor, Dennis Williams, arguably will be unparalleled for a union long known as America's "clean union." Not anymore, not with a president implicated in embezzling member dues and depositing $93,000 in his personal bank account, as federal authorities alleged in court papers this week. Not with Williams depicted as the mastermind of a scheme to use corporate dollars to pay for union extravagances available to leaders, not to the hard-working rank-and-file.

"We were misled," Brian Schneck, president of the UAW Local 259 in Hicksville, New York, told The Detroit News. "We are not going to get fooled again. I am advocate for due process. But in this case, I’m sorry, there’s an overwhelming amount of facts and evidence of criminal behavior that has done nothing but shame, outrage, anger, embarrass all the members of the UAW.

“We are all pretty smart people; we all know who 'UAW Official A' is. It’s very clear to me that it’s Gary Jones" — as The News has confirmed multiple times with sources familiar with the situation. 

Misled isn't the half of it. The hypocrisy of Jones and too many leaders implicated in the metastasizing scandal is exceeded only by their arrogance: that they could preen about corporate greed and fighting for working men and women while pilfering their dues; that they could blow member money on a single golf club that would be equivalent to a week's strike pay for two members walking a GM picket line; that authorities would never catch — much less prosecute — what are alleged to be serial violations of federal labor law.

Cover-ups, fall guys, burner phones, wads of cash, fake or recycled receipts — it's all here. Poolside villas for leaders, mountains of cigars, golf clubs, greens fees, $400 bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne and so much more evoke a gluttony more reminiscent of the Roman Empire than anything approaching accountable union leadership.

Reuther would be sick were he still on this earth. Ron Gettelfinger, the former president who shepherded the union through the bankruptcies of GM and the former Chrysler Group LLC a decade ago, probably is, marveling in his disappointment at the enormity of the mess wrought by his successors. To wit: what assemblage of folks working on the assembly lines of foreign-owned automakers down South would even consider UAW membership after this?

Only the witless. As hard as it may be to contemplate, the next president of the UAW likely is already sitting on its International Executive Board. By dint of incumbency, Gamble stands a shot to accede to the spot and drop the interim tag. But he would not get there unchallenged.

Vice President Terry Dittes, head of the GM Department and voice (on paper, mostly) of the UAW's strike against GM, is said to be angling to succeed Jones. Same for Secretary-Treasurer Ray Curry, who hails from a more pragmatic region covering the mid-South. To bridge the emerging rivalry, according to a source familiar with the situation, the IEB backed Gamble, in part because Vice President Cindy Estrada is said to be reluctant to ascend to the top job.

One likely compromise candidate: Region 1-A Director Chuck Browning. A former administrative assistant to Williams, Browning is nonetheless considered untainted by the federal investigation; knowledgeable about UAW contracts with both automakers and suppliers; and highly respected by auto executives for his smarts and ability to get things done. 

Navigating successfully the vicious politics atop the union will be necessary for the next permanent president, but it won't be sufficient. If the UAW wants to survive, the mandate for its next leader should be to restore the "members-first" ethos championed by Reuther only to be squandered in recent years by Jones, Williams and their posse.

Inevitably, that reckoning could require a so-called "global settlement" with federal authorities that could include plea deals for Jones, Williams and others, federal financial oversight of the union's books, and direct election by members of union officers, including the president. 

Time for such radical change inside the 84-year-old UAW is here. In fact, it's overdue — as all but the most willfully self-deluded can see. Get on with it.


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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.