Howes: UAW's third reform push in three years requires real change

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The most important thing to remember about the United Auto Workers’ highly touted ethics reforms, detailed this week by acting President Rory Gamble, is that this is Round Three.

The union’s third attempt in less than three years aims to tackle a “culture of corruption” deeply rooted in the union Walter Reuther built. The last two sets of alleged reforms, including the risibly named “Clean Slate Agenda,” came from the last two presidents — Gary Jones and Dennis Williams, each frantic to hide their complicity as bosses of a large barrel of bad apples.

UAW President Gary Jones, left, received an award in 2018 for raising money for the union's political action committee from former UAW President Dennis Williams, right. Both of their homes were raided by federal agents Aug. 28.

Instead, they’re better known, respectively, as “UAW Official A” and “UAW Official B” in court papers implicating them in embezzlement and various schemes to steal member dues. Their staggering hypocrisy is exceeded only by the institutional denial targeted by Gamble’s cut at reform, a reckoning that could come too late to avert a federal takeover of the 84-year-old union.

The acting president would sell "Cabin Four" at the UAW's Walter and May Reuther Family Education Center at Black Lake, a posh lakehouse built for Williams that is a "cabin" in name only. Gamble would strengthen financial controls, hire an independent ethics officer, establish a "hot line" to enable anonymous ethics complaints, stiffen enforcement of those found to have misused union funds, and more.

Necessary, all of it, but hardly sufficient. In a commentary published five weeks ago, two former UAW public relations directors called for the resignation of the entire International Executive Board that serves as both the union's management and its board of directors. In short, it oversees itself — meaning some of the same people implicated in the widening federal probe theoretically are positioned to lead the clean up.

Won't work. Culture is a product of history (which can't be changed) and leadership and people (which can be changed). Jones' move to "step aside" and keep collecting his hefty paycheck may keep him out of IEB meetings, but the lack of board turnover tells members (and the feds) that protecting its own remains Job One inside the boardroom.

The primary product sold by the UAW is membership in an organization theoretically devoted to representing rank-and-file workers. Purging leadership would be a highly visible signal to members (and would-be members) that Gamble and the hierarchy he heads are determined to succeed where his predecessors failed.

There's more the union can do, beyond the list of nationwide reforms that read like specific answers to allegations surfaced in federal court papers over the past few years. For starters, its leadership should consider reform tactics employed by General Motors Co. and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in response to existential threats.

First, the UAW should hire (and publicly identify) an independent outside investigator to assess its governance, organizational structure, financial controls, corrupt practices and process for grooming the next generation of top leadership — to the extent there is one, beyond what appears to be a good ol' boys network.

GM did just that in the face of its ignition-switch crisis roughly five years ago. It commissioned Anton Valukas, a former U.S. attorney and partner in the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block, to conduct the investigation. The report, which the automaker made public, revealed a series of failings that CEO Mary Barra publicly detailed to employees in stark terms as the news media listened.

After the initial wave of allegations and criminal charges exposed financial wrongdoing at the UAW's joint-training center funded by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, the union said General Counsel Niraj Ganatra conducted an internal investigation that concluded the corruption ended with UAW-FCA Vice President Norwood Jewell.

The report never was made public. Since Jewell's sentencing, five more UAW officers have been charged with crimes that include fraud, money laundering, embezzling union funds, filing false labor reports. They are Joe Ashton, Nick Robinson, Vance Pearson, Jeff Pietrzyk and Mike Grimes, suggesting a nationwide web of corruption exists inside the union.

Second, the union should consider a way to develop a system for what the corporate world calls "progression and succession." Essentially, it would establish a framework to identify, train and evaluate would-be leaders who understand they work for the dues-paying members, as Reuther often said, not the other way around.

In the early stages of the scandal, union leaders stressed that corporately funded training center monies — not member dues — were mishandled, despite the fact that the cash was earmarked for members. Subsequent cases in Missouri, California and on the East Coast did, in fact, detail misuse of member dues.

Third, a union that has long prided itself for its democratic ethos nonetheless empowers its so-called "Reuther Administrative Caucus" to nominate (i.e., choose) the slate of leadership candidates for delegates to approve. The structure effectively controls who can vie for top spots — and who can't.

As part of its consent decree with the federal government, the Teamsters agreed to conduct direct elections for top officers. The "one member, one vote" change effectively levels membership and leadership, pressuring would-be officers to move beyond their circle of patronage and appeal to wider constituencies.

Evidence of real, systemic reform rests in what people do, not what they say. Financial wrongdoing may be the most visible piece of what's broken at the UAW, but it's not the only thing. How union leaders execute the reforms — and what more gets done — will signal to members and the feds just how serious they are.


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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.