Opinion: A better way forward for United Auto Workers

Chris Brooks and Jane Slaughter

The United Auto Workers union was once renowned for being one of the cleanest in the country.

Walter Reuther, the famed UAW president from 1946 to 1970, was an egomaniac who purged the union of leftists to consolidate his top-down control, but he also had a deep puritanical streak. He didn’t drink or banter about women, and at conferences he refused to stay in luxurious hotel rooms as did other AFL-CIO executive board members.

UAW President Gary Jones, left, and Region 5 Director Vance Pearson.

Today, the UAW is mired in a far-reaching scandal of corruption and self-dealing.

Six union officials have pleaded guilty and a total of 10 have been charged in a multi-year federal investigation into the union. More officials are still under scrutiny.  

They include Region 5 Director Vance Pearson and UAW President Gary Jones, both of whom recently resigned from the union following an announcement that the International Executive Board was pursuing Article 30 charges against them for "conduct unbecoming an officer and member of the UAW." The process could have led to a trial and discipline up to and including expulsion.

It is a moment of deep crisis for one of the nation’s most important private sector unions. The union must act boldly if it hopes to restore its credibility and avoid a federal takeover under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

Sadly, the UAW’s response has been entirely inadequate. Acting President Rory Gamble recently unveiled “widespread ethics reforms,” which includes a hotline for members to report ethics violations, an ethics ombudsman, and an ethics officer who will not be an employee of the union.

Most UAW members are likely unaware that the union already established an independent organization to insure “high moral and ethical standards” — in 1957. Known as the Public Review Board, this organization is composed of labor law professors with a staff to support them.

One of the board’s duties is to investigate and rule on member allegations that leaders or staff have violated the UAW constitution’s ethical practices code, which covers financial impropriety, if the union fails to take action on the allegation or the member is not satisfied with the outcome.

“The Public Review Board are not employees of the union, they have no duty to go in favor of the union, and there have been times when they have ruled against the union in difficult cases,” said Ellis Boal, a Michigan-based attorney who has handled dozens of cases before the Board and has written about the body.

But rulings against the union are rare, and have never touched on the integrity of its top leaders. In fact, despite its formal transparency and separate offices, the Public Review Board has developed a reputation as little more than a rubber stamp.

“So my question is how will another layer of bureaucracy make any difference?” asked Boal.

The obvious answer is that it won’t. Gamble’s moves are a repackaging of the status quo that is already failing UAW members.

For seven decades, the union has been controlled by the union’s ruling party, the Administration Caucus founded by Reuther. Union staff and local officers are all expected to donate to the Administration Caucus and help insure that caucus loyalists are elected as delegates to the quadrennial convention where top officers are elected.

Anyone hoping to work on staff and rise in the ranks has had to be completely loyal to those above them, as described in some of the guilty pleas of those now in jail. That meant keeping their mouths shut about corruption and helping leaders target dissidents who spoke out. 

The Public Review Board itself has acknowledged the role of the Administration Caucus, going so far as to compare the UAW to a single-party state because “in the UAW the lines of demarcation between party, the Administration Caucus, and the formal governing body, the International Executive Board, have become blurred, for 100% of its personnel are, and traditionally have been members of the Administration Caucus.”

All of this points to a simple but powerful reform that Gamble could back: adopt a one-member, one-vote system for electing International officers. Currently officers and regional directors, who make up the executive board, are elected by delegates at conventions.

Local 774 representing GM workers at an engine plant in Tonawanda, New York recently voted in support of a special convention to amend the UAW constitution to guarantee this reform, knowing that it would give rank-and-file UAW members the resources they need to clean up their own union.

That was the route taken in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

As in the UAW today, in the late 1980s the Justice Department was prosecuting many Teamster leaders for corruption, saying they had “made a devil’s pact with La Cosa Nostra.” When the government began taking steps to trustee the union in 1989, the grassroots reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) launched a national campaign summed up on its buttons: “No Mob Control, No Government Control, Right to Vote.”

TDU convinced the Justice Department, and the government mandated direct election of Teamster officers. In the next election a grassroots candidate was voted in by the membership.

The Teamsters still have problems with corruption, but they've been ameliorated by organizing among rank-and-file members, who have the right to form slates to run for union office and sweep out the old guard.

“Democracy is a cleansing fire,” said Dan Campbell, a TDU activist who retired from UPS. “Members aren’t stupid, they won't put up with corruption as long as they have a fair way to run for office and a union-wide vote.”

Campbell has a warning for UAW Administration Caucus members: “A trusteeship under the Trump administration is a worst-case scenario,” he said. “The president could appoint an attorney from a union-busting law firm to be the trustee.” 

Chris Brooks covers the United Auto Workers as a staff writer for Labor Notes. Jane Slaughter is a former editor at Labor Notes who covered the UAW for many years.