Opinion: Making unions great again
Labor Day is a time to celebrate working men and women, and the honorable reason labor institutions were created: protecting workers' rights while on the job.
But this year, the union that represents me is concerned with protecting itself in court.
I’m talking about the United Auto Workers union, which is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department over the misuse of member training funds. The scandal has so far led to seven convictions of top union and auto executives.
The misdeeds echo a lack of respect for their represented employees. Funds intended for member benefits instead "bankrolled expensive meals, golfing, hotel suites, limousines and condominium expenses for high-level UAW officials in Palm Springs, California..." There was even a $10,000 tab for cigar purchases and custom wine bottles emblazoned with a union executive's name.
The corruption may have reached the highest ranks of the union. One of ex-UAW President Dennis Williams’ top aides, as part of a plea agreement with federal investigators, said that Williams signed off on some of the misuse of training funds. This allegation, if true, stands in stark contrast to the statement Williams made just last month to UAW members in Detroit: "The UAW has zero tolerance for corruption…at any level of this organization."
This scandal is personal for me. As a 22-year Ford-UAW autoworker, I was for years forced to pay dues to the UAW or get fired. After my home state of Michigan became a "right to work" state in 2012, I was finally able in 2015 to stop supporting a union that does not represent my interests. Unfortunately, I'm still forced to accept this problematic union representation as a condition of employment.
The root of the UAW's problem is a lack of accountability. The union's first contract with Ford was signed in 1941. In the almost eight decades since then, autoworkers like me have never had the opportunity to vote whether they still want the UAW's representation. Also, union leadership today is selected not by the members, but by a group of insiders known as the "Reuther Caucus" who have an interest in preserving the status quo.
The training-fund scandal makes clear that the status quo isn't worth preserving; like a dirty chalkboard, it needs to be wiped clean to erase decades of scandals and corruption. That’s why I support legislation called the Employee Rights Act, which would provide an option for rank and file workers to select new union representation (or no representation at all) if there's been more than 50 percent turnover in the bargaining unit.
I don't expect union officials to support these reforms. They’re currently busy dodging blame for the scandal, while boosting membership with organizing work outside the auto industry. Recent high-profile organizing losses in Mississippi and Ohio, as well as a struggling campaign at automaker Tesla, do not bode well for the union’s future representing employees in the automotive market. New prospective workers are not buying what the union is selling.
The solution to what ails the union isn't simple, but new leadership and new accountability to members are a good start.
First, current President Gary Jones should step down until the investigation is over, and the entire membership should be allowed to vote at their local halls for a brand-new slate of executive leadership. Lastly, the UAW should voluntarily allow recertification votes at plants and factories it has organized, to give jaded or dissatisfied workers a chance to decide if they still want UAW representation.
After the news of Williams' link to the training center scandal was reported, one auto industry publication ran an article with this headline: "America's Auto Workers Deserve Better Than The UAW."
As an autoworker myself I couldn't agree more, and I'm confident thousands of my colleagues feel the same. Let’s protect workers once again, and hold our union officials answerable and accountable.
Terry Bowman is a 22-year Ford-UAW autoworker.