Opinion: Solidarity House needs a good sweeping

Brian Pannebecker

This Veterans Day marked exactly 23 years that I’ve worked as an hourly production worker at the Ford Sterling Axle Plant in Sterling Heights.

During the hiring process, I was falsely led to believe that I had no choice but to join the union and authorize the company to deduct full union dues from my check. I quickly became disillusioned with the way the union operated and how my dues money was being spent. I was troubled by the favoritism, nepotism and the political activities of union officials.

Serious reform is needed at the UAW International, and myself and many in the UAW membership are hoping there will be a house cleaning at Solidarity House, Pannebecker writes.

It became clear that the UAW leadership’s primary concern was enriching themselves and funding the Democratic Party. This led me to join the organized effort to pass right-to-work legislation in Michigan as a way to empower the union "membership."

Without a right-to-work law, workers in a union represented shop were forced to pay for what I believed was corrupt union leadership. It was an open secret that UAW officials misappropriated our dues money, but there was essentially no way to hold them accountable.

The UAW has a "top-down" power structure. Once a UAW member is elected by their co-workers to a union position at the local level, they are then chosen for any further advancement by union officials above them at the regional or international level. This  insulates union officials from the membership that elected them, and makes them beholden to those in positions of power above them, which can result in corruption. We saw it with the Teamsters union and Jimmy Hoffa, and now we’re seeing it in the UAW under President Gary Jones (currently on paid leave amid a corruption probe) and previous President Dennis Williams.

In 2014, prior to the expiration of our national contract agreement, when I was still a dues-paying UAW member, we were notified that our strike fund balance had dropped by some $300 million. News flash: We had not been on strike.

The UAW International notified all of the locals across the country that at the pre-contract negotiation convention in Detroit, convention delegates would be voting on a proposal to increase the membership dues by 25%, from two hours base pay per month to two and a half hours to replenish the fund. 

The vast majority of the membership were angry with the UAW leadership, and asked where the money had gone, but were very given vague, evasive answers. I ran for delegate at my local, Local 228, but did not receive enough votes to qualify to attend the pre-contract national convention in Detroit, where delegates sent by the locals from across the country approved the dues increase by a “voice vote”. There was never a vote tally, so no one in the leadership could be held accountable, even though they had just increased our dues by 25%.

After this sham convention, I realized I would never be able to change the union from within under the corrupt system, so I resigned from the UAW and stopped paying dues as allowed under the right-to-work law passed in 2012. It wasn’t too long after that that we began to hear about an investigation that was looking into the leadership’s abuse of the "training center" funds, which has led to multiple high-level UAW officials being criminally charged. The investigation is continuing to widen today.

Serious reform is needed at the UAW International, and myself and many in the UAW membership are hoping there will be a house cleaning at Solidarity House.

Brian Pannebecker is a spokesman for Michigan Freedom to Work.