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Howes: UAW's Gamble fights to 'save union' from federal oversight threat

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Rory Gamble has one of the toughest jobs in Detroit — and he sounds like a man who knows it.

He says the United Auto Workers has been shamed and betrayed by “a whole lot of bad actors” whose corruption is the target of a continuing federal investigation. He says government oversight of the union is a real threat, a key reason he is pushing a reform agenda that chafes inside the union even as it underwhelms federal authorities.

Acting UAW president Rory Gamble says the union has been shamed and betrayed by “a whole lot of bad actors” whose corruption is the target of a continuing federal investigation.

“I’m fighting to save my union,” Gamble, acting president of the UAW, told The Detroit News. “My union has suffered great shame and great betrayal, and I feel that personally.”

 “We have to be very precise and have zero tolerance going forward in how we manage our union. Which means we’ve got to be honest with ourselves and recognize that there was a problem, that there’s a need for great change, and we have to show that we can self-govern.”

That won't be easy, judging by the challenges ahead. The longest serving member of the union’s governing International Executive Board, Gamble, 64, is trying to manage an existential reckoning for the union that so far has produced 10 convictions, 13 people charged, implicated the past two presidents in financial corruption schemes and raised the possibility that a union long considered "clean" will submit to federal monitoring.

A racketeering lawsuit by General Motors Co. against rival Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, filed last week, accuses its late CEO, Sergio Marchionne, of masterminding a decade-long bribery scheme. It would use union officials — particularly former President Dennis Williams — to skew collective-bargaining agreements, GM alleges, financially weaken GM and force a merger that would install Marchionne as CEO of the combined company.

And Gamble must negotiate a two-day meeting next week of the executive board to choose a permanent replacement for Gary Jones, the union president who resigned last week in reaction to the union’s effort to remove him under Article 30 of the UAW constitution.

“I expect to go forward,” Gamble said, referring to dropping “acting” from his job title. “I want to go forward and continue and finish the job I started with the board.” Before agreeing to become acting president, he insisted he be “able to go where I had to go and do what I had to do to fix this issue and we left the politics out of it. I made a commitment to myself, and I made a commitment to my union, that if I went to the next convention, I would hand the president a very clean and uncorrupted union.”

To get there, he’s pushing to set the right tone — to champion transparency, to “craft our narrative” because “we’ve been silent too long,” to recognize that leadership’s credibility with some 400,000 members is shattered, to cooperate fully with a federal investigation he says is “in the fourth quarter.”

Matthew Schneider, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, doesn’t share that assessment. In an interview with The News, he said the years-long investigation into UAW corruption is “maybe” the “end of the middle. We don’t know. It’s an ongoing investigation.”

Acting United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble

 “It would be nice if they really wanted to cooperate with us to actually cooperate. That would be helpful,” he added, waving the union’s list of Article 30 charges against Jones and saying his office first learned of the alleged crimes from a news report. “It’s lengthy. It’s eight pages long, single-spaced, basically. We can’t get to the bottom of — and fully return the UAW to the workers — unless everyone’s on board. And that includes the leadership.”

Still, Gamble sounds like a president who understands the gravity of the UAW's predicament, the damage to the leadership's credibility among the rank-and-file, the need to jettison the cults-of-personality that too often served the whims of the sitting president and often left fellow executive board members on the outside looking in. 

His first set of reforms, however inadequate they may be to federal prosecutors, nonetheless were designed to send a stern internal message: no more business as usual. Gamble ordered the sale of a posh lakehouse built for Williams at the union's Black Lake resort. He plans to implement "stringent monetary controls" and to increase oversight by the UAW accounting department, including "reviewing every financial ... transaction that goes on in the UAW."

He ordered an end to all charitable contributions from joint-training centers, vendors or employers to charities run or controlled by UAW officials. He is enacting accountability measures for joint programs. And he's moving to "permanently" ban "purchases of promotional items using joint program funds."

Also, two days into his tenure as acting president, he ordered what he calls a “complete legal review” of the union’s predicament and directed that it be shared by the executive board. The briefing took hours, a symbol of just how complicated — and how fraught — the union’s legal exposure is.

Wherever the feds are in their crackdown on union corruption, this much is certain: it's not over, and legal peril for the UAW is not, either. A director of Region 5, Vance Pearson, appeared Tuesday in federal court to answer for corruption charges, and two past presidents — Jones and Williams — are likely to be charged, adding yet more details of betrayal to the lengthening list.

Is Gamble the guy to lead the UAW through a crisis of corruption largely of its own making? The mess culminates at least a decade (and probably more, if the off-the-record calls and emails from members are remotely accurate) of embezzling, self-dealing, even outright theft — largely fueled by the dues of hard-working members, if not corporate dollars funneled through joint-training centers.

A native of southwest Detroit, Gamble is highly regarded by auto executives who've worked closely with him. A long-time director of Region 1A, he rose to vice president and director of the UAW-Ford Department and earned a reputation for deep knowledge of the contract, professionalism and a willingness to study all sides of tough issues. 

"He's always been a straight shooter," said Joe Hinrichs, Ford Motor Co.'s president of automotive, who's maintained extensive ties to ranking UAW leaders for at least the past decade. "He's also very trusting of people around him, and they feel empowered."

That's a start for a union that's proven to be increasingly poorly led since former President Ron Gettelfinger shepherded the UAW through the trials of bailout and bankruptcy a decade ago. Barring a challenge to his nascent presidency at next week's board meeting, however, Gamble can't do it all alone — he'll need help from folks committed to being part of the solution.

"We're behind the eight ball here in our reform agenda," he said. "We've had this constant drip drip of things coming out which have put us in a very bad light. We don't have time to procrastinate on big things, on what needs to be corrected in our union. We've got to move fast."

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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.