Finley: Scandal may mute UAW's political influence

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Michigan will play a key role this fall in perhaps the most significant presidential election in decades. But the biggest player in state Democratic politics will be preoccupied with larger priorities.

The bribery and kickback scandal that has engulfed the top leadership of the United Auto Workers is expected to reduce the union’s influence and limit its ability to push a challenger to President Donald Trump over the top in Michigan, predicted again to be one of a half dozen that will decide the election.

“It will impact their influence, because leadership is going to be distracted and can’t give their full attention to this upcoming election,” says Michigan Democratic political consultant Howard Edelson.

“It also may raise questions about whether membership will provide the political dues the union needs. But if I were a Democratic presidential candidate or a statewide candidate, I’d be more concerned about whether the UAW can deliver the votes of rank and file members.”

That was always going to be a concern in the presidential race, given the strong support Trump enjoys among blue-collar workers. The added worry is whether an official endorsement from the UAW might do more harm than good with an angry and mistrustful membership.

“I’m not sure I’m going to ask the UAW for an endorsement this time,” says a Democratic officeholder who was backed by the union in her first campaign and is seeking reelection this fall. “With the scrutiny on corruption, it may not be a good idea. Stealing money from your members is about as bad as it gets.”

For the short-term — meaning this election — the alienation between the membership and leaders may make it tougher for the UAW to produce the get-out-the-vote volunteers it typically delivers for Democrats who receive its blessing.

And the scandal offers GOP candidates an opening to grab more union votes than they typically get in Michigan.

Bill Swift, left, 47, Cece Rodriguez, 32, both of Tecumseh, and Juanita Kelley, 39, of Adrian cheer for Dana Nessel at the Michigan Democratic Convention at Cobo Center in Detroit.

Trump did well among blue-collar union voters in 2016. But down-ticket, those votes still favor Democrats over Republicans. The GOP’s support of right-to-work and other anti-union measures at the state level has cost it votes of union workers who might otherwise lean conservative.

“In this election, candidates need to get on the side of the rank and file,” a Teamster consultant says. “The credibility of UAW leaders with the membership is very low. The idea that the leadership is putting hundreds of thousands of dues dollars into campaigns without input from membership creates an opening for Republicans.”

Voicing support for direct elections and spending accountability would resonate with the rank and file and is something Democrats endorsed and funded by the UAW might be reluctant to do.

The greatest potential impact is in the Michigan U.S. Senate race, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Peters enjoys strong support from the UAW. But his GOP challenger, John James, would have to lay off attacking unions in general and specifically target the corrupt leadership.

In Michigan, the UAW has been most potent at the nominating conventions, where candidates for races not subject to primaries — attorney general, secretary of state, judges and university boards — are selected.

Getting the UAW endorsement has generally meant getting the nomination, although the union was thwarted in 2018 by Attorney General Dana Nessel, who prevailed at the convention without its backing.  

That rebuke was read by many as a waning of the UAW’s political influence, largely attributed to declining membership. It also reflects a lack of interest in Michigan politics by the two most recent past presidents, Dennis Williams and Gary Jones, both of whom have been implicated in the federal probe but not charged. Their reluctant political engagement stood in sharp contrast to their predecessors, Bob King and Ron Gettelfinger, both of whom were Democratic kingmakers.

Former UAW President Bob King gives remarks supporting Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during a rally at the Livonia Public Library, January 12, 2020.

For the long-term, the scandal risks further loosening the UAW’s hold on the state Democratic Party.

It’s quite likely, considering how widespread the corruption is at the top of the union, that the UAW will end up under government oversight. That happened in 1989 to the Teamsters, which signed a consent decree with the feds that runs until next year.

 Federal monitoring could take different forms and could include restrictions on how the UAW spends money raised from members.

“The UAW traditionally takes guys off the line and pays them to work for political campaigns,” says the Teamster consultant. “That may be something the government looks at.”

No matter what happens, the UAW appears headed toward reforms that include a one-member, one-vote system to replace the current cronyistic election of national officers by delegates.

That will force the union to be more responsive to members and may well end its symbiotic relationship with the Democratic Party.

Yet even a muted UAW has tremendous political muscle in Michigan and can’t be counted out as a force this fall.

“The UAW is still the big dog in Michigan Democratic politics,” says Edelson. “It’s not as strong as it used to be, but they’re still the powerhouse.”

Catch Nolan Finley on “One Detroit” at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on Detroit Public Television.