Howes: UAW corruption fallout hits innocent OPEIU bystanders

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The latest casualties of the federal investigation into United Auto Workers corruption don’t even belong to the union.

They’re 64 members of Office Professional Employees international Local 459, the clerical, technical and maintenance workers who will lose their jobs in 60 days because the UAW-GM Center for Human Resources on the Detroit River is being closed following agreement between the union and General Motors Co. bargainers in last fall’s national contract talks.

The UAW-GM Center Human Resources building in Detroit.

The years-long federal probe into UAW corruption effectively started in the union's corporately funded training center jointly operated with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Three FCA executives, including the former head of labor relations, and five UAW-FCA employees were convicted of financial wrong-doing, prompting all three Detroit automakers to push to close the training centers.

The UAW-GM center will be dissolved and the workers will lose their jobs on March 31 — the same day their current contract expires, says Lance Rhines, senior service representative for Local 459. Meaning the scandal that has charged 13, convicted 11 and implicated the past two UAW presidents now is costing innocent bystanders their own union jobs.

“Absolutely” OPEIU members of Local 459 are collateral damage in the UAW corruption crackdown, says Rhines. “It’s tragic that corruption above us cost 64 jobs at the CHR. They’re not guilty of anything other than working for the CHR. Many of them have been there for decades, 30-plus years.”

Union leaders were told at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday that 64 Local 459 members and seven non-union “mutually aligned personnel” would lose their jobs as part of the joint plan to dissolve the CHR. The process is likely to be repeated in some form at the UAW joint-training centers operated in partnership with Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

The fate of Local 459’s members underscores a particularly ugly side of the scandal: namely, that the corruption detailed by federal investigators is beginning to damage rank-and-file members whose only sins are a) working for the joint training centers or b) handing over dues money to leaders inclined to blow it on pricey steak dinners, poolside villas in the high California desert and $400 bottles of Cristal champagne. 

Some solidarity, that. The toll wrought by the scandal is mounting, trashing the credibility of the union and its leaders and undermining organizing efforts at non-union auto plants down south. It's also fueling a brewing nationwide mutiny by members determined to force a constitutional convention to consider amending UAW bylaws to allow direct election of top officers.

The federal crackdown isn’t close to the end, prosecutors have signaled more than once. Late next week, the former director of UAW Region 5, Vance Pearson, is scheduled to appear in federal court in Detroit for an arraignment and plea hearing before U.S. District Judge Paul Borman.

Federal agents investigating a kickback and bribery scandal within the UAW are probing financial ties between President Rory Gamble, a retired vice president and one of the union's largest vendors. And former presidents Gary Jones and Dennis Williams are subjects of an ongoing investigation, accused of being members in what prosecutors call a “racketeering enterprise.”

A reckoning is coming. Among other things, it’s likely to intensify the push to adopt direct elections, weakening the decades-old influence of the Reuther Administrative Caucus on the selection of top union officers.

The upshot: a scandal whose roots can be traced to the first weeks after Chrysler Group emerged from federally induced bankruptcy a decade ago is destroying the credibility of a whole generation of UAW leaders — people (almost all men) who climbed the greasy pole of leadership only to slide back into a mess of their own making.

The result confirms the worst suspicions on the factory floor: that leaders elected to safeguard the economic interests of their dues-paying members are more interested in safeguarding their own interests, court filings and reporting by The News show, invariably with someone else’s money.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Or listen to his Saturday podcasts at or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.