Howes: Embarrassed UAW scrambles for elusive courage in crisis

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

In the long history of Detroit butt-covering, almost nothing rivals the United Auto Workers’ Thursday data dump on ousted President Gary Jones.

After years of issuing breathy statements denouncing the behavior of union officials — and three Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV executives — convicted in the continuing federal crackdown on union corruption, the wizards of Solidarity House now are documenting for the first time what prosecutors and The Detroit News have been chronicling for more than two years.

Then-UAW President Gary Jones and Region 5 Director Vance Pearson.

The deposed union president and his sidelined Region 5 sidekick, Vance Pearson, stand accused by their peers of submitting “false, misleading and inaccurate expense records,” as well as arranging a week's stay for Jones' daughter in a Palm Springs condo. Who knew?

The UAW and its governing International Executive Board, evidently, content to stand by as evidence mounted against Jones, Pearson and former President Dennis Williams. Never mind that the union's bias for intransigence increases the prospects this sordid chapter in the UAW’s 84-year history will culminate in federal oversight.

Avoiding it will not be easy for a UAW whose reputation as a "clean" union is destroyed. If the past couple of years has demonstrated anything to federal officials on the outside looking in, it's that this cornerstone of the modern American auto industry is incapable of policing itself or its own, especially the big shooters on the executive board.

Absent embarrassing outside pressure from the feds (an early morning raid on Jones' suburban home amid national contract bargaining), an impassioned commentary from two former UAW PR directors calling for mass resignation of the entire executive board, or reporting in The News detailing a growing mutiny among locals from Massachusetts to Kentucky, this institution and its leaders are frozen with inaction.

UAW decision-makers don't heed counsel from crisis communications pros. They don't recognize credibility (theirs, Jones', the union's) doesn't get better over time, or after a six-week strike against General Motors Co. in the middle of it all. And they repeatedly demonstrate no understanding that transparency is the quickest route to recovery.

Don't take my word for it, take the UAW's actions. A faction of the governing executive board, armed with fresh evidence from The News identifying Jones as "UAW Official A" in more financial wrong-doing, moved to oust him less than two days before the UAW-GM contract expired. He survived.

On Oct. 31, federal prosecutors indicted a longtime aide to "UAW Official A," accusing the two of embezzling as much as $700,000 in dues money and agreeing to split the proceeds. Less than two days later, Jones stepped aside for a paid leave of absence and was replaced by acting President Rory Gamble, head of the union's Ford Department.

On Wednesday, The News reported a growing revolt of at least six locals seeking to oust Jones and Pearson under Article 30 in the UAW constitution. Within hours, the governing executive board invoked the same article in nine pages of charges against Jones. He resigned instead.

The pattern speaks for itself. And so does the simple fact that the UAW leadership is failing to enforce its own rules, or properly audit its own books, or safeguard the dues money contributed by members — that instead ended up financing some high living for the lucky few.

"It is a federal criminal offense for an officer of a labor organization to embezzle, steal or convert to his own use, or the use of another, any moneys or assets of a labor organization, such as the UAW," the union says in its charges against Jones.

The union continues, citing its "Ethical Practices Code": "Union funds are held in sacred trust for the benefit of the membership. The membership is entitled to assurance that Union funds are not dissipated and are spent for proper purposes. The membership is also entitled to be reasonably informed as to how Union funds are invested or used."

Fat chance. The UAW missed multiple opportunities to come clean with members, to use the growing mountain of evidence to stop the madness. It also missed a chance to end a gravy train now said to have been part of an orchestrated attempt by FCA to grease the skids for union backing of a mega-merger with General Motors Co.

That would have been a sellout of epic proportion, delivered courtesy of union leaders present and past struggling to determine whose side they're on.


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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.