Ex-UAW official to head Detroit's neighborhoods department

Jimmy Settles

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan has selected a former UAW-Ford executive to lead the city's Department of Neighborhoods.

Ex-UAW-Ford vice president Jimmy Settles Jr. is to replace Charlie Beckham, who is retiring Sept. 1. 

“We have to keep going until every neighbor in every house feels like City Hall cares about them,” Duggan said at a press conference Tuesday. “Who could be the kind of great leader that could replace (Beckham)? I thought there’s one person in this town who for 50 years had made sure that everybody in his union was taken care of. Jimmy Settles was coming to an end of a 50-year UAW career.”

Settles, the mayor said, made sure that 100,000 Ford union workers were treated fairly.

“When you lose a great leader, you need to replace him with a great leader,” Duggan said.

As group executive of neighborhoods, Settles will earn $155,000 per year and oversee the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, which was created in 2014. The department oversees district managers and deputy district managers in each of Detroit's seven City Council districts to address blight and other community concerns. Settles is considered a mayoral appointee and will not be receiving city benefits.

Settles said he'd told Duggan in the past to let him know if there was "anything I can do to assist the city. " The mayor then raised the possibility this spring, he said. His assignment officially begins Sept. 4. 

"I believe in contributing to the city. I love the city. I've been here all my life," Settles said. 

To start, Settles said he intends to talk with the department staff and spend time in Detroit's communities, listening to residents. One focus, he said, will be to work on better organization of city block clubs. 

"I don't ever go into anything thinking I know everything. I don't," he said.

The appointment, however, comes less than a year after federal agents expanded a corruption investigation to include United Auto Workers training centers funded by all three Detroit automakers. Settles had been co-president of the joint training center the UAW-Ford National Programs Center.

The probe is focused on training funds that feds say were misappropriated, and if labor leaders at GM and Ford received money or benefits through their tax-exempt nonprofits — an allegation that emerged last summer involving Fiat Chrysler and General Holiefield, a former UAW vice president who died in 2015. The scandal has led to seven convictions.

Late last year, The News revealed federal agents were interested in Joe Ashton, a retired UAW vice president appointed to GM’s board in 2014, and Cindy Estrada, his successor in charge of the union’s GM department, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Since that disclosure, Ashton resigned from GM's board and Estrada last month was transferred to replace former UAW Vice President Norwood Jewell as head of the UAW's Fiat Chrysler department. Neither Ashton nor Estrada have been charged with a crime.

Settles, 68, has not been charged with a crime during the ongoing investigation.

On Tuesday, he noted the union has been in operation for more than 77 years and "I personally think we did some good things."

"It's always been tough. Had there not been a federal investigation, we've been blamed for inflation, a bad economy and everything as a union," he said. "This is just another additive to it."

When asked if the ongoing federal probe caused the city any pause in selecting Settles, Duggan's chief of staff, Alexis Wiley, stressed few in the city are as "respected and trusted" as Settles. 

"That's why the mayor offered him this position, and why he's so thrilled Jimmy accepted," Wiley said. 

National labor experts told The Detroit News that Settles was known as much for his work within the UAW as for his philanthropic efforts in Detroit and the metropolitan area.

He began working at Ford's Dearborn Iron Foundry in 1968 and first ran for a UAW leadership position in 1970. By 2006, he was elected vice president and re-elected twice, officials noted. He has served on the union’s International Executive Board since June 2002, when he was elected director of UAW Region 1A.

Settles received standing ovations at the June 2018 UAW Constitutional Convention in Detroit, where the UAW officially celebrated his union legacy and retirement. He was called then a tough negotiator and a bold leader of the Ford employees he represented. 

But he was fair to both sides, experts said. That's what made Settles a "quintessential union leader," according to Sue Schurman, a professor at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations.

Schurman has known Settles since the mid-1980s, when Settles was an active leader at UAW Local 600 in Dearborn. Schurman was then director of labor studies at the University of Michigan.

She said she was not at all surprised Settles had so quickly found a job with the city.

"Union leaders when they retire are usually offered positions like this because of their experience and their relationships," Schurman said. "Most of them still want to contribute. I would assume he still wants to contribute, and he cares deeply about the Detroit Metropolitan area. It's where he’s from. This is a guy who can make an enormous contribution."

Marick Masters, director of the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University, said he'd intended to hire Settles at the university before Settles got a call from the mayor.

"He can do a lot more good there," Masters said. "He is very good at connecting with people, but he’s also demanding. He expects a workforce to work. He realizes that you have to have high levels of productivity to compete."

Officials on Tuesday noted various community efforts that Settles has supported including a $1.8 million makeover of a baseball field in the city's Woodbridge neighborhood spearheaded by the UAW and Ford Motor Co., building improvements at Detroit College Prep at Northwest High School and efforts to aid the city's homeless.

Settles is a life member of the NAACP and serves on its national board of directors.

He also has served on the boards of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, the Wayne County Airport Authority and the North Rosedale Park Civic Association, among others.

Beckham announced last week that he would be stepping down after serving six mayors over four decades.