United Auto Workers wants to leave a legacy of corruption

DETROIT — For United Auto Workers, the past five years have been one of the most disturbing chapters in union history.

A federal investigation found widespread corruption, including a dozen senior officers, including two former presidents who have been convicted of embezzling more than $1 million in union funds for luxury travel and other lavish personal expenses. Since last year, the union has been under the scrutiny of a court-appointed monitor who has been charged with ensuring that anti-corruption reforms are carried out.

The scandal tarnished the once powerful organization and left many of its 400,000 active members angry and disillusioned.

“You bet I’m crazy,” said Bill Bagwell, who has been at the UAW for 37 years and works at a General Motors parts warehouse in Ypsilanti, Mich., represented by Local 174. “That was our money, workers’ money. I don’t like people stealing our money.”

Now UAW members have a chance to determine how much of a break they want to take from that past. In one of the changes inspired by the corruption scandal, the union will choose its leaders this year through direct elections – a first. Until now, the president and other senior officials were elected by delegates to a convention, a system in which the executive board of the union could shape the outcome through favor and favor, and the results would always reflect the views of the rank and file. Didn’t.

“Everyone in power is in one party, and it has been like that forever,” said William Parker, a retired activist who is eligible to vote and expects to see a fresh slate of officials. “But now we have one man, one vote, and we are marching for change.”

Over four days last week, at the sometimes chaotic convention in Detroit, some 900 delegates debated a wide range of issues facing the union. Four members were nominated to challenge incumbent President Ray Curry in the fall election. Under rules approved by delegates, the union’s approximately 600,000 retirees can vote but cannot run for executive offices. If no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the vote, the top two will be in a runoff.

The proceedings of the conference dragged on each day as members stepped on the microphone to offer motions, objections and requests for clarification. A day after voting to increase the stipend for striking workers from $400 to $500 a week, he rescinded the move. At least three times Mr. Curry had to deliver a state-of-the-union address to force an extended debate force adjournment, and the convention was adjourned without his address.

Mr Curry is seen as a strong contender for re-election. He has served in senior positions for more than a decade and became president in 2021 in the aftermath of the corruption scandal.

A potentially serious challenger is Sean Fein, an electrician who has been a member of the UAW for 28 years and holds a position with the union’s headquarters staff. He is part of a slate of candidates for senior positions, and is backed by a dissident group, Unite All Workers for Democracy, which has raised thousands of dollars for the election campaign.

“Members must believe in leadership and believe that corruption is behind us,” Mr Fein said.

The other candidates are Brian Keller, a quality activist at Stelantis who has run a Facebook group criticizing the union’s leadership over the years; Will Lehman, an employee at the Mack Truck Plant in Pennsylvania; and Mark Gibson, president of Local 163 in Westland, Mich.

Challengers and Mr Curry agree on most of the key issues at stake in next year’s contract talks. Members want automakers to reintroduce living wage adjustments as a key element of UAW contracts, and eliminate the compensation gap between new and more senior workers. Workers hired in 2007 or earlier earn a full UAW wage of approximately $32 per hour and are guaranteed a pension. Workers hired after 2007 start work at lower wages and can work up to the top salary in five years. They get a 401(k) retirement account instead of a pension.

Dorian Fenderson, a UAW member at a GM location in Warren, Michigan, started a year ago as a temporary worker at $17 an hour and after four months was made a permanent hire, making $22 an hour was.

“There are people who are doing the same $34 thing as me,” he said. “I know they’ve been here a long time, but it’s not really fair to people like me.”

Opposition candidates have called for the UAW to take a more confrontational line in contract negotiations to return concessions now that are tangibly profitable to manufacturers, and to allow them to keep more production in the United States and use more union labor. to inspire. GM is building four battery plants in a joint venture, and Ford Motor is building three with its partners. The union will have the opportunity to settle those plants, but success is not guaranteed.

“We are bleeding jobs, and this has to stop,” Mr Fein said.

Mr Curry said he was confident that battery plants would be organized and workers would be covered by UAW contracts with automakers. He noted that similar joint ventures had been represented by the consortium in the past, and noted that current contracts provide engine production to UAVs.

“We believe that batteries are the powertrain of electric vehicles,” he said in an interview. “It’s just new technology. We have a right to negotiate that and set up those places.”

A potential weakness for Mr Curry could be the recent actions that have angered some members. He and his executive board members have recently increased wages and pensions for themselves and others working at the union’s headquarters. A vice president running for re-election spent $95,000 in union funds on backpacks embroidered with his name and to be given to members at union meetings, a move that was funded by union money for his campaign. can be seen as being used.

In a July report, the court-appointed monitor, Neil Barofsky, wrote that he had 19 open investigations into possible irregularities, and said Mr. Curry’s leadership group has been uncooperative at times. Mr Barofsky, a lawyer for a New York firm, wrote that union leaders had uncovered the misappropriation of union funds by a senior official, but he had covered up the matter, although he noted that cooperation and transparency had increased in recent months. have improved.

Mr Curry said that once he became aware of the communication issues with the monitor, he stepped in and addressed the matter.

“You have to read the report to the end, and at the end the monitor talks about true transparency, response times and the change in attorney, the steps we have taken to show that we are moving in a positive direction,” he said. Told. “And I’ve told the monitor, if he has a problem, come straight to me so I don’t read about it in a report four months later.”

Mr Barofsky declined to comment beyond the findings in his report.

Decades ago, the UAW was a powerful organization that could influence presidential elections and achieve steady increases in salaries and benefits, often through harsh negotiations and strikes. Its contracts with GM, Ford and Chrysler set standards that help raise wages and benefits for working classes across the country, union and non-union alike.

But its fortunes ran short as Detroit automakers steadily scaled down their US operations and Toyota, Honda, Nissan and other foreign automakers struggled to compete with non-construction plants throughout the South. Bankruptcy filings by GM and Chrysler in 2009 forced the union to make concessions once unthinkable, including a two-tier pay structure.

Over the past 10 years, automakers have rebounded, often with record earnings, and union employees have benefited. Last year, GM paid each of its UAW employees a profit-sharing bonus of $10,250. But on other fronts, the union is still holding back. A 40-day strike in 2019 was unable to prevent GM from closing a plant in Lordstown, Ohio, and workers have gone without adjusting for costs in their wages since 2009.

Corruption investigations were launched by the US Attorney in Detroit around 2014, and eventually found schemes that embezzled $1.5 million from membership dues and more than $3.5 million from training centers. Top union officials used the money to buy expensive cigars, wine, liquor, golf clubs, apparel and luxury travel.

More than a dozen UAW officers pleaded guilty. As part of a consent decree settling the investigation, the US District Court in Detroit appointed Mr Barofsky to oversee the UAW’s efforts to become more democratic and transparent.

In July, a former UAW president, Gary Jones, was released from federal prison after serving less than nine months of a 28-month sentence. Another former leader, Dennis Williams, served nine months of his 21-month sentence. Other convicted officers were also released after serving less than half the sentence.

At the conference last week, the short sentences were a source of dismay for many attendees, but as proceedings progressed, many voiced support for Mr. Curry and the current executive board’s issues.

David Hendershot, a forklift driver at a Ford plant in Rawsonville, Michigan, said he wants the union to push for higher pay in contract negotiations next year, and he was not happy with the corruption that had occurred. But he is not sure he wants a drastic change in leadership. “I’ll probably stick with what I’ve got,” he said.

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